Convicted politician R. Budd Dwyer's televised suicide haunts us not because he was guilty of his crimes, but because he was innocent.
In January 1987, R. Budd Dwyer’s suicide left the entire country reeling — not because R. Budd Dwyer was particularly well known outside of Pennsylvania, but because his violent death took place in the most public place imaginable: a press conference. And it was all on camera.
On January 15, 1987, R. Budd Dwyer, the acting Pennsylvania State Treasurer, held a meeting in his suburban Pennsylvania home. He sat with his press secretary James Horshock and Deputy Treasurer Don Johnson to discuss setting up a press conference related to his recent legal issues.
The 47-year-old was a week away from his sentencing on convictions connected to bribery, but he remained adamant about his innocence, as he had done throughout the investigation and trial.
Both Horshock and Johnson left Dwyer’s home that evening assuming that their boss would resign at the press conference after making one last statement of innocence and pleading for mercy in front of the local media.
Dwyer had other plans.
WARNING: Some viewers might find this video disturbing.
Who Was R. Budd Dwyer?
Robert Budd Dwyer graduated from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and quickly became active in local politics. In 1964, running as a Republican, he was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and served until 1970.
That year, while still a sitting State Representative, Dwyer ran for a seat in the Pennsylvania State Senate and won. After winning reelection twice, Dwyer set his sights on the state office and ran for Pennsylvania Treasurer in 1980. He won reelection to the seat four years later.
Around the same time, Pennsylvania officials discovered that some of its state workers had overpaid millions of dollars in Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes due to errors in state withholding. Several top accounting firms across the country competed for the multimillion-dollar contract to determine the compensation to be paid to each employee.
The contract was eventually awarded to a California-based firm, Computer Technology Associates (CTA), owned by a native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Months after the contract was awarded, Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh received an anonymous memo detailing allegations of bribery that took place during the bidding process for the contract and named R. Budd Dwyer as one of the people receiving a kickback in the deal.
Enraged by the allegations, Dwyer denied any wrongdoing and maintained his innocence. Nevertheless, Dwyer and several others were eventually charged.
In a show of leniency, federal prosecutors were willing to cut the treasurer a deal — he’d plead guilty to a single charge of bribe receiving, resign from office, and fully cooperate with the rest of the investigation. The single charge carried a five-year prison sentence.
Dwyer turned down the deal, believing his innocence would be proven in a trial.
However, on December 18, 1986, Dwyer was found guilty on 11 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, perjury, and interstate transportation in aid of racketeering. He faced a sentence of up to 55 years of imprisonment and a $300,000 fine.
His sentencing was scheduled for January 23, 1987.