Another Reason Not to Rush to Judgment

Here’s another reason to be wary about jumping to conclusions about the shooting at Fort Hood: Bill Sparkman.

Sparkman is the part-time Census employee whose body was found near a cemetery in rural southeastern Kentucky on Sept. 12, a rope tied around his neck and the word “Fed” scrawled on his chest. Coming in the wake of August’s angry town hall meetings and amidst still-brewing “tea party” sentiment, Sparkman’s death looked like a case of anti-government violence. In some accounts, key details were slightly off in a way made the scene more lurid, the prospect of malice more likely. This Gawker item, which asked whether the case represented “the next generation of lynching,” states Sparkman was hanging from a tree and the word was carved in his chest—neither of which were true.

From the start, local journalists were skeptical that Sparkman’s death was the result of anti-government motive. When I talked to a few Kentucky-based reporters and editors in September, they suggested, uniformly though with varying degrees of intensity, that the “town-hall” narrative might be leading the press in the wrong direction. (Some sort of connection to marijuana cultivation was the leading alternative theory.) Even some of them, though, wondered why Kentucky State Police were taking so long to rule Sparkman’s death a homicide; the case clearly looked like a murder.

And maybe it was… but, then again, maybe it wasn’t. From yesterday’s AP check-in on Sparkman’s death:

WASHINGTON — Investigators probing the death of a Kentucky census worker… increasingly doubt he was killed because of his government job and are pursuing the possibility he committed suicide, law enforcement officials told The Associated Press.

The parallels between Sparkman’s death and the mass murder perpetrated by Nidal Malik Hasan only go so far, of course. In the case of Fort Hood, we know that a crime was committed, and we know who committed it. But we don’t know, yet, what made him do it. And we really don’t know yet—if we ever will—what it means.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.