Innocent Bystander September 2004

Witless Protection

Coping with the sixteenth minute

Last spring a seventy-nine-year-old woman serving on the jury in the case of the alleged Tyco kleptocrats Dennis Kozlowski and Mark Swartz was seen making a motion with her hand that observers interpreted as an "okay" signal being flashed to the defense team. Because this juror—Juror No. 4—was widely believed to be the lone holdout against conviction in the long-deadlocked jury deliberations, a suspicion of jury-tampering seeped into the atmosphere. Then, despite the venerable practice of shielding the identity of jurors, at least until a trial is over, the name of the woman was divulged by the press, and her picture was soon splashed on the front pages of tabloids. Juror No. 4 turned out to be a grandmother and former teacher named Ruth Jordan, who had earned a law degree after retiring from the classroom; and as it happened, her supposed hand signal to the defense was an innocuous gesture, empty of intent. No matter: she was subjected to much scorn, and received a threatening letter. Disturbed about what had happened, the presiding judge declared a mistrial. Kozlowski and Swartz must steel themselves for more of the same(another courtroom, another festival of embarrassing evidence), but for Jordan life will never again be quite normal.

The details may change, but the general circumstances Ruth Jordan faced have an appalling whiff of familiarity about them: an unwitting citizen is suddenly caught in the pitiless glare of the media, and either can't or won't get out. It is never an edifying sight, and unfortunately, given the way publicity works in America, it is increasingly hard to avoid. A visitor coming fresh to our civilization would remark these squirming figures and take them as a warning, much as anyone approaching a medieval city would have remarked the residue of miscreants on poles and gibbets.

Even the briefest reflection calls to mind scores of recent examples. There is the case of Alexandra Polier, a young woman who once had dinner with Senator John Kerry and became the focus of baseless rumors about an illicit affair. ("Intrigue surrounds a woman who recently fled the country, reportedly at the prodding of Kerry, the Drudge Report has learned.")

There is the case of Steve Bartman, the Chicago Cubs fan who during a crucial playoff game last fall reached out for and deflected a foul ball that Chicago's Moises Alou might have been able to catch. The Cubs went on to lose the game, and the playoffs. Bartman, who issued a statement saying he was "truly sorry from the bottom of this Cubs fan's broken heart," was nevertheless hounded by ill-wishers. The Chicago Sun-Times reported, "At one point Wednesday, six police cars were parked outside the Bartman home as reporters crowded the street."

There is the case of Richard Jewell, the security guard who became a suspect in the bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games, in Atlanta, and whose name was invoked in many media outlets as if a guilty verdict had already been reached. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution pointed out that he fit the profile of a lone bomber: "This profile generally includes a frustrated white man who is a former police officer, member of the military, or police 'wannabe' who seeks to become a hero." Jewell, the authorities soon established, had nothing to do with the bombing.

Think a little further. There is Fawn Hall, an assistant to the Iran-contra impresario Oliver North, who shredded some papers for her boss and has found herself portrayed ever since as a femme fatale. There is Baby Jessica, the toddler who fell down the well in Texas and after fifty-eight hours was finally extracted; for chronological bearings, please note that Baby Jessica recently graduated from high school. There is Frank Wills, the security guard who found on a door the telltale piece of duct tape that led to the discovery of the Watergate break-in; and Betty Currie, who was ensnared in the Interngate scandal because, as Bill Clinton's private secretary, she facilitated Monica Lewinsky's comings and goings; and Theresa LePore, who designed Palm Beach County's unfortunate butterfly ballot. Think of George Holliday, the man who filmed the Rodney King beating (think of Rodney King himself). And let's not forget the dressmaker Abraham Zapruder, who serendipitously filmed the Kennedy assassination. Or Ruth Paine, who innocently befriended Lee Harvey Oswald and his wife, and in whose home Oswald stowed his rifle (without Paine's knowledge). The brief acquaintanceship forever altered Paine's life—a story told unforgettably by Thomas Mallon in his book Mrs. Paine's Garage.

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Cullen Murphy is The Atlantic's managing editor. More

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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