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?

Baker says the reporter wasn't asking probing questions; on the contrary, she was sympathizing with Scott's position, at one point putting her hand on his shoulder. Baker says Scott was having difficulty answering the reporter's questions.

"He can't name names; he can't tell you times; he can't describe the simplest routine that anybody that actually worked on that levee would have been able to do," Baker says. "So when I looked at that, I never said, "Aha, I can get Jim Scott again,' but my antennae were raised as I listen to him. He can't answer these simple questions, and if you watch it, he's looking around there at first, and the things he had to say and the way he said them, and the fact that he's over there to begin with, you scratch your head."

Moreover, says Baker, Scott looked far too clean to have worked on a levee all day.

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."

Soon enough, Baker and the Quincy Police Department had joined a task force along with county, state and federal law-enforcement agencies, including the FBI. On Oct. 1, 1993, Baker and his younger brother Bruce, a detective at the time, went looking for Scott and found him at Burger King, where he had just punched out for the night from his janitorial job. They arrested him there for a recent burglary in Quincy. Baker says the tone during questioning was conversational; on three occasions, he and Scott shared a cigarette break outside.

"There were several things that Mr. Scott was suspected of, and we talked about all of them," Baker says. He adds that Scott thought he was being charged for the levee and not the burglary. "Jimmy Scott said, and I'll delete the expletive, "You guys want to talk to me about that levee.' When he brought it up, he didn't bring it up in such a way that seemed that he was eager to talk about it.... It was a compound word that started with mother, and he was grumbling."

The two talked about the burglary and four other crimes in which police considered Scott a suspect, the levee coming up last. Baker says Scott admitted to two of the crimes but denied the other two. As for the levee, though Scott did not admit that he sabotaged it, he told Baker that he saw a trouble spot and pulled four sandbags from one area and threw them on another. According to Baker, Scott also said that he didn't mean to make it worse. He was simply trying to help.

But after Scott was charged, some new evidence arose. A man named Joe Flachs, himself a troubled youth at the time who was under house arrest, told police a very interesting story. Flachs would later testify in Scott's first trial, in 1994, that Scott told him about a plan to break the levee in order to strand his wife in Missouri; Scott reportedly wanted to party in Illinois without her.

It was, in media parlance, a "sexy" story. A story about a man who caused a flood because he wanted to strand his wife on the other side. The Associated Press moved the story on its news wire, the New York Times wrote a piece, and CBS and ABC led their nightly newscasts with the story. CNN News and Court TV descended on sleepy Quincy. Court TV, in fact, broadcast gavel-to-gavel coverage of Scott's second trial (he was granted a retrial in July 1998 because prosecutors failed to notify the defense about two new witnesses whose testimony implicated Scott). They revisited the case again in January 1999 because producer Vivian Ducat was fascinated by it. "I thought it was a story that seemed to come out of a novel," Ducat says.

Yet in all the hoopla, nobody mentioned Scott's version. "My car was in the shop getting a new starter, and as soon as it was ready, on July 17, I went and picked Suzie up," Scott says. "I brought her home less than 24 hours after the levee failed. She was home with me in Illinois."

The wife-stranding motive was used by John Jackson, the prosecutor at Scott's first trial in 1994. According to Scott's attorney at the second trial, Marion County public defender Raymond Legg, that motive was never brought up by Tom Redington, the prosecutor at Scott's second trial.

"What (Scott) had said and what witnesses remember him saying, I think, is open to dispute," Legg says. "I was hoping the prosecution would bring up the statement about stranding his wife. I was prepared to refute that. The state chose, though, not to introduce those statements, probably because they knew I'd be able to turn it against them.

"I wanted to focus on a lack of evidence and their reliance upon a motive when motive is not an element of the offence," Legg says. "When people focus a case on something that is not an element of the offence, it's because they don't have anything else."

Apparently the prosecution had something because Scott was, once again, convicted of causing a catastrophe. The prosecutors in the two cases, Jackson and Redington, say they are certain about Scott's guilt and think that the punishment is appropriate, given Scott's previous run-ins with the law.

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