February 28, 2008


[Editors' note: Our original posting about this book, Version 1.0, has been removed. Concerned readers thought it had been written by someone who had not read the book. This proved untrue -- he had taken notes on the work -- but in writing the review, he had unacceptably relied too heavily on material supplied by the publisher. We are educators by background and decided to turn this into a learning experience by requiring him to go through the article and rewrite it. The rewrite appears here as Version 1.1. In addition, we have had a more-senior writer read the book independently and review it separately. That article appears below this one and is designated Version 2.0. We appreciate the time that some readers took to provide the intelligent and thoughtful input that alerted us to this situation and will make it easier to prevent any recurrence. Our thanks.]

Damned to Eternity: The Story of the Man Who They Said Caused the Flood. By Adam Pitluk. Da Capo. $24.95.

      Quick: what is “the flood” of the title? No, it’s not Noah’s, and it’s not the flooding of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. If you don’t immediately know that “the flood” occurred in 1993, in and around West Quincy, Missouri, then you will have no idea what this book’s title means.

      Furthermore, unless you know there is a significant controversy about the flood's cause – revolving around Inmate #1001364 in the Jefferson City Correctional Center – you may not be drawn to the story of James Scott, unless perhaps you are a lawyer or other interested party seeking to have his life sentence commuted or find a way to make him eligible for parole sooner than is now the case.

      Thus, Damned to Eternity is a book with a highly dramatic title but very little general interest, although those who remember or were affected by the 1993 flooding of 14,000 acres of farmland may want to read it if they have not tried to put the event behind them.

      The tale does have interest, though – primarily as a study of some of the more bizarre elements of the U.S. legal system. Scott is the only man ever convicted, under a Missouri law, of Intentionally Causing a Catastrophe, a Class A felony. It is "an obscure 1979 criminal statute," Pitluk says, and under it, the flood was defined as a catastrophe even though not a single person was killed; in fact, not a single one was injured. But the law, even if it is a bad law, is on the books, and Scott was convicted of violating it. And yes, that conviction carries a life sentence.

      But did Scott do it? That is the crux of this study by Adam Pitluk, a journalist who lived in Missouri through most of the 1990s and who has studied this case in detail and here reports on it exhaustively. The case is a very minor one in American jurisprudence – although not to Scott, of course – but here gets the sort of in-depth exploration usually reserved for matters of deeper moment and wider implications. Pitluk has not only studied the records but also interviewed a number of the people involved in the case, and his research, both primary and secondary, is impressive. He certainly brings the characters in the case vividly to life – and in doing so casts doubt on whether Scott was guilty, even if that is not what Pitluk specifically intended to do.

      Scott, a 24-year-old fast-food worker in 1993, was, by all accounts, a troubled young man who had had run-ins with the law before. Nevertheless, he was helping with relief efforts during the nine days of rain that drenched West Quincy and nearby areas. On July 16, Scott either tried to shore up a dam with sandbags and went to get help…or made sure that the dam would fail, which it subsequently did.

      Scott was convicted of sabotaging the dam both in 1994 and in 1998 – Pitluk takes readers through both trials – even though no one ever thought he had much of a motive: he supposedly wanted to go drinking with friends on one side of the flood while leaving his wife stranded on the other side. Pitluk's recounting of the trials makes it clear that the prosecutors simply did a better job, as when cross-examining an indisputably impartial witness giving scientific testimony:

"So you weren't in West Quincy?"


"And you weren't even within 100 miles of the Mississippi River?"

"That's correct."

"So you're speaking about a theory [that would exonerate Scott], is that right?"


"A theory based on pictures?"

"A theory based on my professional opinion of the pictures."

"But a theory nonetheless?"


      When the trials were done and Scott imprisoned, at least the residents of the flooded areas could move on, whether or not they believed Scott guilty. Scott, though, has no chance to move on until at least 2023, when he will first be eligible for a parole hearing. Yet for all the anguish caused by the flood and the likely miscarriage of justice in Scott’s case, it remains very difficult for those uninvolved in what happened in 1993 to feel more than abstract sympathy for a man who may well have been caught in a web of bad law, bad weather and bad judgment among townspeople looking for someone to blame.

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