DAMMED TO ETERNITY

James Scott was sentenced to life in prison for causing a destructive levee break during the Flood of '93. But was he simply an easy scapegoat for a town raging at its devastation?

The Jefferson City Correctional Center is an unsettling place. Yellowish limestone walls, colored that way because of too many years and too little care, tower as high as those of any other building in the state capital. Picture the prison from The Shawshank Redemption, complete with four stories of cells stacked on top of each other and wrought-iron bars clanging around the clock. The windows are small and filmy, obstructing any view and defeating the purpose of their construction. They also dim the sun's brightness and make nightfall seem that much darker. Originally constructed in 1836 with buildings built as early as 1868 still in use, the prison is an aging hulk, yet sturdy enough to hold about 2,000 men, most of whom will serve the majority of their adult lives within its walls. Inmates live in cells no larger than the average residential bathroom. In fact, they are bathrooms -- with beds squeezed in as well. Close quarters for such free-willed men.

Among the inmates is James Scott, a 30-year-old small-time repeat offender from Quincy, Ill., who has been serving a life sentence here since July 14, 1998, after his second trial ended with a guilty verdict. He is led by a heavily armed guard into a small office with a concrete floor and cinderblock walls. This is his first media interview since 1994, when he was first convicted. He didn't take the stand at either of his two trials and therefore has never publicly spoken about what landed him here.

His felonious crime was "causing a catastrophe." He became the first person in Missouri to be charged, tried, convicted and sentenced in the law's 20-year history. More specifically, he was convicted -- at both trials -- of intentionally causing the West Quincy levee break during the Flood of '93, resulting in damage to 14,000 acres of Missouri farmland and residential areas. He was given a life sentence, and although he is eligible to be heard by the parole board in July 2011, it is almost certain he will spend his life here.

James Scott
Jennifer Silverberg
James Scott
James Scott: "There's the truth, but people don’t want that in this case. They haven't got the whole story. My side of the story hasn't changed, and it's not going to change. Theirs has. I wish the people could believe in me."
James Scott: "There's the truth, but people don’t want that in this case. They haven't got the whole story. My side of the story hasn't changed, and it's not going to change. Theirs has. I wish the people could believe in me."

He sits down in tattered prison clothes -- dark-gray threads smeared with dirt, probably the result of working at the prison panel factory -- and his new-looking black high-tops, clearly the only article of clothing he makes sure to keep clean. His hair is sandy blond and parted down the middle, giving him a tougher look than he had at his trials, when his hair was short on top and grown past the collar in the back. He sports a neatly trimmed goatee with hints of red in it and keeps his cheeks closely shaved. He speaks with a simple Midwestern drawl but is clearly not used to talking much. For the last six years, he has repeatedly asked himself two questions: How did he end up here, and will he ever see another sunset?

Scott speaks regretfully of how much sunsets used to mean to him. He talks of sitting on the banks of the Mississippi River in Quincy, looking west over the glistening water and watching the colors melt into the gentle ripples. He talks about better days when he and his now ex-wife, Susan, would go dancing at the local roadhouse and then head on down to the river to talk. Despite his checkered past, and despite the occasional snickers Scott heard behind his back -- the pointing fingers and the whispers about how he was the guy who burned down Webster Elementary School when he was 12 -- Scott wants nothing more than to return to the banks of that familiar river and to see his family once again. He also knows he can't.

He has agreed to talk now because, legally speaking, he is at the end of his rope. Lately he has been spending his time reading law books and filing appeals, but things don't look too good.

The life sentence came partly because Scott was judged to be a repeat offender. Webster Elementary wasn't the only thing Scott set on fire. There were other crimes and misdemeanors -- a lot of property damage but no injuries or deaths. Scott, an old-school fire-starter, is now ironically owing his life because of too much water.

Scott says, though, that he is sorry for his past crimes and has recognized his part because of his new devotion to God; he found Jesus in prison and notes that owning up to one's sins is a step toward redemption. "I'm sorry for the hurt and pain that people went through, but it's done," he says. "Let things lie. You can't change it. I can't change it. God knows I wish I could, but I can't."

However, though he is sorry for the fires, he will not apologize for the flood.

"As for what Judge (Robert) Clayton said, how I show no remorse, you know, I'm not sorry. I'm sorry for what the people during the Flood of 1993 lost, but sorry for something I didn't do? No."

Troubled Waters

July 16, 1993. Chaos. For weeks, residents living on and around the floodplain had sandbagged the West Quincy levee, originally designed to hold back 30 feet of water. Bulldozers were brought in to build the levee up, making it possible for it to sustain up to 32 feet of water. On Tuesday, July 13, the water level was at 31.9 feet.

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