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R. Budd Dwyer’s Televised Suicide Change Airwaves Forever AP Photo/Paul Vathis
AP Photo/Paul Vathis

On January 15, 1987, Robert Budd Dwyer, a Pennsylvania politician committed suicide on live television. He was scheduled to be sentenced the following day for a bribery scandal, although he claimed he didn’t do it. Driven to hopelessness, he ended his own life at a televised press conference.

Dwyer, the Politician

Robert Budd Dwyer was interested in politics his entire life. The second he graduated from Allegheny College in the city of Meadville, he was active in his local Pennsylvania politics. In 1964 he was elected for a Republican seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. He served there until the 1970s when he ran for and won a seat in the Pennsylvania State Senate. Continuing to move up, Dwyer was elected to be Pennsylvania State Treasurer just ten years later. He also won re-election.

At the same time as Dwyer’s reelection, Pennsylvania officials found out that some of the state workers overpaid millions of dollars in Federal Insurance Contributions Act taxes. Since it was such a high profile situation the top accounting firms were competing to determine who would get the contract to determine what the state workers would receive back. The contract was given to a California based accounting firm. The firm, however, was run by a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania native. Since Dwyer was in state politics, or maybe because someone had it out for him, the Pennsylvania treasurer was accused of bribery.

Public Suicide

He wasn’t the only one accused and tried. Federal prosecutors offered to cut him a deal if he pled guilty. He refused because he was innocent. But, that choice was a gamble because the charge he was facing would potentially put in him prison for five years. But, believing he had done nothing wrong, he stood by his decision. He was hopeful, but it was to no avail. He was found guilty on 11 counts of conspiracy, perjury, mail fraud and aiding in racketeering. There was a $300,000 fine as well as a sentence of up to 55 years of prison.. all for a crime that he didn’t commit.

The day before he was would be sentenced, he called a press conference in the living room of his family home. He prepared a 21-page speech about the flaws in the criminal justice system. Towards the end it went like this:

“I am going to die in office in an effort to see if the shameful facts, spread out in all their shame, will not burn through our civic shamelessness and set fire to American pride.’ Please tell my story on every radio and television station and in every newspaper and magazine in the U.S.. Please leave immediately if you have a weak stomach or mind since I don’t want to cause physical or mental distress. Joanne, Rob, DeeDee, I love you! Thank you for making my life so happy. Good bye to you all on the count of 3. Please make sure that the sacrifice of my life is not in vain.”

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And with that, he handed out envelopes to his staffers, mostly for his family, which contained funeral instructions. And lastly, he produced his own manilla envelope and took out a Smith and Wesson Model 27 .357 Magnum revolver. Panicking, some people fled the room, others pleaded with him not to do anything to hurt anyone. Before anything occurred, the did warn people, “Please, please leave the room if this will … if this will affect you.” With that, he committed public suicide by shooting himself in the mouth with the revolver. He slumped to the ground instantly, dead. For those curious here is the video from the media present.

***WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT***

There were many outcomes to the news conference. First, the world was shocked. The scene was played on the news, but only on one channel in its entirety. Second, since he died while still in office, his wife, Joanne Dwyer, and children would be able to collect survivor benefits. This totaled over $1.2 million dollars. Lastly, a light was shined on the injustice of the justice system and how no one is safe. In a 2010 documentary, Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer a former chairman of the Dauphin County Republican Committee attested to this theory.

He was a witness in the trial and admitted to lying about Dwyer taking bribes. He did so to make his own sentence lighter. He later admitted to feeling the weight of his decision and the part he played in Dwyer’s death. He helped frame an innocent man, and that is something you cannot outlive.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published on January 27, 2020.

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