Alan Greenblatt is a GOVERNING correspondent.E-mail: email@example.com
When a public official gets indicted, the standard response is to blame prosecutors and, where appropriate, the media. Protestations of innocence and a politically-motivated smear campaign, however, are most often followed by a guilty verdict or plea.
What happens, though, when the public official is acquitted?
Robert Regola III, a Pennsylvania state senator, has quit his reelection campaign despite having been acquitted of charges related to the shooting death of a teenaged neighbor. He says he was forced out due to the tabloid-style coverage of the case by the local media.
"Despite my acquittal, it is easy to see that voters can have doubts about my character, given what the media unfairly wrote about me," Mr. Regola said in a statement. "Their tabloid-like reporting has tarnished my reputation in this community and made it more difficult to seek re-election."
Regola is right. Being found innocent of a crime doesn't mean people won't still question your judgment. Certainly the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story is written in such a way as to suggest Regola displayed questionable judgment, even if nothing was actionable.
After his acquittal, Mr. Regola said John Peck, the Democratic district attorney of Westmoreland County, had prosecuted him for political reasons. Mr. Peck replied that he brought charges against the senator based on evidence state police uncovered in the shooting death of Louis Farrell, a 14-year-old boy who lived next door to the senator.
The coroner ruled that Louis shot himself to death with Mr. Regola's 9 mm pistol in July 2006.
Mr. Peck initially said no crime had occurred but later changed his mind. He prosecuted Mr. Regola for perjury, providing a firearm to a minor, reckless endangerment and three counts of false swearing.
The essence of the prosecution's case was that Mr. Regola gave the pistol to his own teenage son, Bobby, who showed it to friends. Louis then purportedly took the handgun while he was caring for the Regolas' dogs and used it to kill himself.
After a jury found Mr. Regola not guilty of all charges, the Farrell family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against him. The Farrells say they doubt that Louis killed himself.
Mr. Regola said he thought of Louis Farrell as a son. But, he said, he has been unable to reach out to the Farrells because of tactics used by their lawyer, Jon Perry.
"The attorney they hired has attempted to denigrate me in the press by misrepresenting my actions and, most of the time, outright lying about the facts of the case," Mr. Regola said.
Mr. Perry had a tart response: "If there's any distortion of the facts, I would suggest it's by the senator, who has a fanciful or inaccurate recollection of what actually occurred."
I'm not saying the paper is right and Regola is wrong, just that this is how the case is still being presented. Despite his acquittal, Regola would have faced a campaign about nothing else.
Is that fair? Should we only judge public officials on matters that can hold up in court? Or is it inevitably a smear when an official can clear his name in court but not in the press?
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