Burden of Proof


Burden of Proof

Billy Sothern
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I decided to go to Camp Eagle Hill for one more year. I was fourteen and had been going there for five years. I had been a very little boy in the lower camp and then, nearly half a life later, I was one of the older kids, hanging around the Lake Side bunk house waiting for David and Ian to finish up their Hebrew lessons so we could play basketball or tennis or blow off sports altogether and hit frogs with our tennis rackets against Big Red, the gymnasium where we played deck hockey and had “Sing,” the final event of Color War.

I was too old for camp, really. I was slowly becoming leery of Billy Joel, thought “Sing” was corny, and was developing a strong adolescent impulse against having things required of me. But camp was still a salve, a place where nothing went wrong beyond the occasional broken bone, and where I, like it or not, belonged. The camp plaques in the dining hall proved it. There I was, Billy “The Gangster of Love” Sothern, among the campers in the “Fly Skimmers,” in Hill Top 6, Summer of 1987. There again, Billy “Southern Comfort” Sothern, in Club Clueless in Hill Top 8, the following summer, and so on. People were not suspicious of me here, unlike in my new hometown, where a seventh-grade curiosity about marijuana and huffing Scotchgard had gotten me a reputation for being a “druggie.”

For this reason, when our counselor’s money went missing—a couple hundred dollars in tips from a recent parents’ weekend—no one suspected me, though we were all certain that one of the boys in the bunk had taken the money. Our counselor, Brian Levow, devised the kind of justice that makes sense only at camp, and demanded that we all gather a hundred yards away from the cabin. He explained that he did not want to know who took the money. He only wanted it returned. He said that each of us would go back to the cabin, enter it, spend a minute inside, and return, and he asked that the person who took the money use this opportunity to return it to a drawer in his music-cassette storage box. We all agreed.

Brian sent in my friend Ian first. Ian rolled his eyes at the ridiculousness of having to do this, because, of course, he hadn’t taken the money. But Brian smacked him in the head, and that convinced him to go. Ian went and quickly returned. Next, Brian directed another boy, Josh, to go into the cabin. This was Josh’s first year at camp and I didn’t like or trust him. He was not one of us, had never been a Fly Skimmer and never would be. He was the culprit, I was sure. As he walked out of the cabin and back toward us, I volunteered to go next and started my walk to the bunk. My stomach filled with butterflies as I opened the door, turned left toward Brian’s bed, and then slid open the drawer to see a thick wad of bills. “Motherfucker, it was Josh.”

I walked back out of the cabin, returned to the group, and let the charade continue, with the balance of the boys coming and going before Brian entered himself and returned, satisfied, with his money in hand. It was all there. He was content to leave it at that. But I was not.

I asked to speak with him and told him that I knew that Josh had stolen the money. Ian couldn’t have done it, I argued, because “we all know Ian,” and that meant that it had to be Josh. Brian’s face grew red with annoyance that I had undermined the elegant solution to his problem, but he took Josh aside and confronted him with my accusation.

I went back into the cabin where the other boys had gathered while Brian and Josh talked outside. I announced to all of them that Josh had stolen the money and explained how I knew. We talked about it for a few minutes, about what should happen to Josh, whether he should be kicked out of camp, about how he never did fit in. Then Brian and Josh entered the cabin. Brian could see that I had told the others, and he quickly cut off all discussion, saying, “I have talked to Billy and I have talked to Josh. Billy says that Josh stole the money. And Josh says that Billy must be saying that only because he stole the money.” I couldn’t believe it and was stunned. Brian continued, “As I already explained, I’m not interested in finding out who is to blame, and at this point it’s impossible. So let’s drop the whole thing.”

The other boys turned to me and, other than Ian and David, my close friends, I could see their doubts. They had heard from me about the trouble that I had been getting into at home. And they could see the logic in Josh’s claim. I was so pissed off that I went at him, ready to fight, but Brian threw me out of the bunk, announced that the matter was closed, and told me to take a walk and not to come back for an hour.

All of the self-righteous certainty that I had had as I had walked down the steps of the cabin earlier was gone, and instead I fumed at Josh’s wrongful accusation, reeled at the possibility that people might judge me, and tried to devise some way of proving that Josh had done it, and that I had neither lied nor stolen.

When I was nearly across the ball fields below the cabins, Ian caught up with me. He told me that he knew I hadn’t done it and that Josh was a thief and a liar. But when I responded that I wasn’t sure what the other boys thought, what other people at the camp would think when they heard, I started crying. Ian suggested that we go talk to his uncle, Mark Levy, the gruff camp bus driver and sometime camp disciplinarian who was dean of a school the other ten months of the year.

We got to Mark’s room. He let us in, and as I continued to cry, Ian explained what had happened and how Josh had stolen the money. Ian asked his uncle, the kind of man who people trust with problems and dilemmas, how we could make it right, prove Josh had stolen the money, and clear my name. He shook his head, looked down at me, and put his hand on my shoulder. He told me that he believed that I hadn’t taken the money, but that I found myself in one of the greatest problems of logic and Mosaic and Anglo-American law. I had no idea what he was talking about. He explained that it is nearly impossible to prove a negative—that I did not steal—and that it was equally hard for the boy I had accused. He spoke words from another language: “Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat.” I asked if it was Hebrew. He replied, “It’s Latin. And it’s the basis of our criminal law. It translates to something like ‘The burden of proof is on the accuser, not the accused.’” I saw that I was trapped on both sides of the equation and could prove neither my own innocence nor Josh’s guilt. Because I was never truly innocent again, I resolved to avoid the role of accuser from then on.

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