A wrenching decision

I was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I graduated. The columns I wrote are still up on the web archive, but I’d rather not depend on The Diamondback to host them indefinitely. Thus, I have decided to repost them on this blog, not only to archive them in a place under my control, but also so the readers here can get a glimpse of my writing from college. Here is the fifth of my opinion columns, A wrenching decision, originally published May 9, 2006.

Recently, it was revealed that at least six people knew information about a high-profile murder for the better part of a year without anyone going public with it. Though everyone has been paying attention to what the murderer, his friends and the family of the victim may have been thinking, not many seem to wonder about the anonymous tipster, who, upon learning of this secret, made the incredibly difficult decision to go public with it. What internal wars might he or she have waged? What follows is a possible account of his or her story.

Have you ever been let in on a terrible secret? One so dark and wrenching that lives hang in the balance? We’re not talking about trivial bedroom squabbles – we’re talking about arson, death – yes, even murder.

You’ve become friends with a tight-knit group of people. You like them and seem to be fitting in well. You thought you knew all there was to know about them, but one drunken, dreary night, something you were totally unsuspecting of comes up: One of your friends knows a murderer. And all the rest of them know it.

You remember hearing about an off-campus house catching fire last year. One student was killed and another seriously injured. It was ruled an arson shortly thereafter and buzz flew across the campus. But in the months to come, no new leads presented themselves and the case was nearly shelved, unsolved. Yet half a dozen people knew the truth and did nothing.

So you think about letting out the truth. But first, you converse with your friends and tell them they should be the ones to go public with it – they’re responsible for keeping it secret for so long. None of them are willing. Perhaps they don’t want to betray their friend, or maybe they feel his actions were justified. You give them a deadline, but they just laugh it off. They don’t believe you when you say you’ll go public if they won’t. You have to make this decision on your own.

One overcast spring night, after the sun has gone down and the roads are illuminated solely by the light of streetlamps and a blue emergency pole in the distance, you slip out and head to a payphone. Your hands tremble as you pick up the phone and reach into your pocket for a quarter, then stop. You don’t need money to place this call. Nine-one-one, three solitary tones, a short conversation and the deed is done.

You return to your home. You feel numb. You can’t concentrate. You just keep thinking again and again, have I done the right thing? A man is now going to spend the rest of his life in jail because of my information, and it’s not going to change the fact that his victim is dead. Six people already know about the crime and they can’t seem to keep it a secret – couldn’t I have just waited for someone else to find out?

Your heart races as the secret you leaked hits the news. You have betrayed the confidence of your friends but set an entire family at peace. The police chief sincerely thanks the anonymous informant – you – for coming forward and solving the case. The murderer confesses. The campus sighs with relief now that the case is closed. Yes, you have done the right thing. It took a lot of courage to do what you did, a courage that others lacked.

That evening you feel at ease for the first time since being let in on the secret.

This was a fascinating column to write because it’s not every day a college-level columnist gets to write about that favorite topic of big-boy journalism, murder. But we had one of our very own! The back story is simple as it is stupid: a guy was walking past a house party when some people hanging out on the porch (who didn’t even live there) made fun of them. Much later that night, after the party was over, he soaked the porch in gasoline and lit it on fire. The house was quickly engulfed in flames. Most of the people inside the house made it out alive, including one who broke his ankle jumping from the second floor, but one student was caught inside and died in the fire. The murder went unsolved for over a year, but apparently the student who set the blaze wasn’t keeping his mouth shut, and eventually someone he told went to the police with it. This column was about the difficult decision made by that person.

If the style of the column feels a little bit weird, that’s because I had originally written the whole thing as one extended metaphor. But my editor said that was too out there for an opinion column, so I had to do some rewriting. But you can still see me struggling against the shackles of newspaper journalism in the final product. Writing this column was made more difficult by me knowing some of the details of the case, through the reporters at The Diamondback, that weren’t for general circulation (such as the gender of the person who went to the police). The column elicited some negative reactions from people who didn’t like the partial fictionalization of a real life murder. Oh well. There will always be people who say that subject X is off-limits for writing about, but of course, most writers will always beg to differ.

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