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Chandra Bozelko: Dulos suicide shouldn’t indicate guilt

Chandra Bozelko
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The Daily Herald

Fotis Dulos was on his way to becoming the new Scott Peterson. Remember Scott? His pregnant wife Laci vanished right before Christmas 17 years ago.

The mystery became a nationwide obsession, especially after Laci’s body surfaced in the San Francisco Bay a few months later. His paramour, Amber Frey, had already revealed herself to police and Peterson was tried for Laci’s and her son Conner’s murder and sentenced to death, a penalty that has since been paused in California. The story gripped news programming back in the good old days when the most shocking story that could break was a premeditated homicide.

Jennifer Farber Dulos, mother of five children under age 8, disappeared in Connecticut in May, and security cameras caught her estranged real estate developer husband - one who openly cheated on her - and his girlfriend disposing of Jennifer’s blood-stained clothes in random trash cans in Hartford. He was charged with tampering with evidence and now murder, even though Jennifer’s body hasn’t been recovered.

Differences in the Peterson and Dulos cases don’t take them away from the same narrative: A charismatic and philandering husband found his wife an inconvenient facet of his life, so he just deleted her. Were it not for distraction by social media and the impeachment of the president, we’d undoubtedly be talking Dulos all day like we did Peterson.

Peterson’s and Dulos’ stories diverged on Jan. 28 when Dulos sat in a running car inside his 13,000 square foot home to take his own life. He died on Jan. 30.

Speculating whether the scheduling of the hearing and the suicide are connected would be improper. I don’t know if they are.

But I know this: This suicide will be seen as an admission of guilt.

It wouldn’t be the first time. Judicial interpretation of suicide regarding conciousness of guilt has a long history in the United States. The earliest record of it, though, a decision from 1897, beheld a suicide the right way. The judges wrote: “One who commits or attempts suicide seeks to avoid no punishment. He deliberately accepts the highest punishment that the law could possibly inflict - death. Hence the very circumstance that raises the presumption of guilt from flight is absolutely wanting in suicide.”

But this opinion changed over time. In 1993, the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that a defendant’s attempted suicide is like attempted flight. Twenty-five years later, the Supreme Court of South Carolina said that a man who tried to hang himself after he was served with 10 warrants in one day must have done so because the state had him dead to rights. Suicide was just his DIY death penalty.

Most outsiders assume that anyone who’s wrongly accused of a crime long for the chance at exoneration. The only way to live to fight another day is to stay alive.

That’s a sanguine way of looking at this system. The likelihood of winning a trial is about as likely as Scott Peterson being selected as a juror on the Dulos case. That’s why 98% of felony charges are resolved by plea bargain, even when the defendant is innocent. In that tiny percentage of tried cases, about 1% win which means 0.02% - two one-hundredths of a percent - of the 10 million people arrested each year will fight the law and win. Innocence is no protection in these systems.

If the odds that you’d be free were less than a 10th of a percent, you’d grow despondent, too.

I don’t know if Dulos was guilty or not, but I know what it feels like when the state comes at you with all its weight. You’d rather be dead. And some people won’t be denied that relief.

Some defendants who act as their own executioners are the least sympathetic ones around. Mustering up the moral energy needed to dig into whether suicide equals guilt becomes less urgent when you read the fact patterns in the accusations lodged against them: trafficking, child sexual abuse or, in Dulos’ case, spousal murder. Many people don’t care about these defendants, dead or alive.

Ultimately, Dulos’ suicide says more about the system than it does about him.

Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at outlawcolumn@gmail.com.