Guilty until proven innocent — the lesson of Gary Thibodeau's case: Matt's Memo
Guilty until proven innocent. That’s how the justice system works. That’s how the public perceives the accused. That’s how jurors view a man accused in the kidnapping of an 18 year old girl.
It is our nature to see the person led into court in handcuffs as the one who did it. The police said he did. The prosecutor said he did. And our gut says he did. That is why judges sitting on the bench, prosecutors at televised news conferences and law enforcement sending out news releases of arrests always add some element that reminds us to pause. Our system goes against the grain of what our eyes may tell us. It actually presumes innocence until guilt is proven.
After nearly a quarter century in prison, Thibodeau died Sunday night, maintaining his innocence right up until the end.
I recall the first time seeing the video of Richard Thibodeau. I was anchoring the news on Channel 3 in May of 1994. We still have the file tape. He looks disheveled. The lights glare of his thick eyeglasses as he looks toward the camera, appearing confused. His red flannel shirt gives the impression of a working man. Police surround him. His hands are cuffed.
Amid the nearly two months of searches, vigils and intense media coverage of the disappearance of the 18-year-old D&W convenience store clerk Heidi Allen, Richard Thibodeau looked guilty that day. After all, police said he was the last customer on that slushy Easter Sunday morning. He bought a couple of packs of cigarettes. If Richard looked guilty, his brother Gary looked even more so.
It took another month before police walked him in front of the waiting bright lights of the heavy television news gathering gear of 1994. Gary had on the tank top white undershirt. He didn’t shave often. He looked tougher than his brother. And he carried more attitude. Now the story of who abducted Heidi Allen made more sense.
It played out on our broadcasts and in the papers. Two brothers worked together to abduct her. One could definitely be placed at the scene. The other was brought back to Oswego County from a Massachusetts jail where he spent a few weeks on a drug charge after the Allen kidnapping.
The sheriff and the prosecutors on the case validated the relief the family and the heavily invested public felt. The small town judges added their stamp on the paperwork that showed Richard and Gary Thibodeau were accused in the kidnapping.
Guilty. Until proven innocent. A trial would come, but minds were made up. It’s our nature. We can’t resist.
And sometimes, even a jury can’t resist. A year after his arrest, Gary Thibodeau’s trial came first through the luck of the draw. In these last two weeks, one of the jurors on the case told me she kept waiting to hear the evidence. She kept waiting for something that proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Gary Thibodeau kidnapped and presumably killed Heidi Allen. That juror is still waiting.
They came back to the court twice and said they were struggling to reach a verdict. She said they did not take repeated votes, but just kept talking it through. They discussed how they felt about Gary. They agreed he probably had done something wrong. After all, he had been in jail briefly on a drug charge. But no evidence placed him at the D&W convenience store that morning. No witness could definitively say he was there. She gave little credibility to the two jailhouse informants from Massachusetts that claimed Gary made admissions regarding in the case while passing time in the same cell.
That juror does not want to say they were pressured to convict, but remember our human nature. Remember the fervor over the case at the time. Remember the family’s relief that the kidnappers of their Heidi had been caught. The jury found Gary Thibodeau guilty. That juror now regrets that decision and calls it a miscarriage of justice. She does not think he did it.
Richard Thibodeau had the good fortune of going second. Remember, he was the one who definitely was there that morning. He called police himself to let them know he bought the cigarettes. Two weeks ago Richard and I drove back to the parking lot of what is now a Valero convenience store at that same corner of Route 104 in New Haven, Oswego County. Sitting in the car Richard explained the drive he made in his van that morning. He talked me through every step into the store where Heidi Allen was just another clerk working behind a counter.
As we sat in the same parking spot, where he parked his van that Easter Sunday, he quietly expressed regret over doing the right thing that morning and calling police to help.
"After a while it came on TV that Heidi Allen was kidnapped from the store," he recently told CNYCentral. "I said to her grandma 'I was there.' She said 'maybe you should call. Let em know you were at least there.' So I did, like a dummy. I shouldn't have done that."
You can hear the pain in his voice. The sense of responsibility for the life his brother did not live. One convicted, the other found not guilty – presumed innocent.
Nineteen days before he drew his last breath, Gary Thibodeau sat in a wheelchair in a sweltering hot morning at Coxsackie Correctional Facility. His body nearly crumpled on itself. He held his head up. He took swigs of Pepsi. He treasured each breath of oxygenated air he could gather from the portable oxygen unit tethered to his nose. He knew he was a dying man.
One last time, he remained true to what he has said from the beginning.
"They know I didn't do it. I had nothing to do with it,” said Thibodeau.
I asked the 64-year-old whether he believed in God.
"I believe in the Creator. Call 'em God if you want I believe in the creator," he said.
And what is he saying?
"Everything is done for a reason. Damned if I know the reason," he said.
His legal case dies with Gary. There will be no moment of justice in court. No revelation from a fresh jury seeing the facts dispassionately. For over 24 years, Gary Thibodeau could not overcome our nature of seeing guilty over innocent. And honestly, the truth of what happened that morning evaporated as soon the late spring wet snow melted on Easter Sunday.
Lesson of Gary Thibodeau
Let the story of Gary Thibodeau offer this as inspiration. When you’re the journalists covering the story, ask questions until your satisfied. When you’re the juror called to duty, be the one who stands up to say 'let’s slow down.' When you’re the detective in the police station, be the one to say what about those other guys. When you’re the prosecutor before a grand jury, be the one immune to the public pressure in the streets. When you’re the judge hearing an appeal, be the one who thoroughly reads the briefs and sees all the evidence. Be the one with the open mind and remember it is not guilty until proven innocent. It is the other way around.