On December 16, 2008, a 64-year-old man facing a felony charge of starting a destructive forest fire in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness committed suicide, three weeks before his federal trial was scheduled to begin. Stephen Posniak, a retired federal employee in Washington, D.C., had discovered the BWCA while getting a master’s degree at the University of Minnesota. For nearly twenty-five years, he had made trips there virtually every year, typically in early spring when the wildlife come out of hibernation.
During Posniak’s visit in May 2007, however, a wildfire broke out along Ham Lake and grew into the largest in the area since 1918. Due to extremely dry conditions, it eventually burned 76,000 acres in Minnesota and Ontario, consuming 138 buildings on the American side of the border alone. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt, though the government estimated the property damage at $11 million and the fire suppression costs at $10 million. Mr. Posniak came under suspicion and in October 2008 he was indicted on a felony count of willfully starting the fire, as well as misdemeanors for failing to extinguish a campfire and making a false statement to a forest officer. With trial coming up and the government unwilling to drop the felony charge, Mr. Posniak shot himself in his backyard. His attorney accused the U.S. attorney’s office of overcharging, and even people who lost property in the fire questioned whether justice was served in prosecuting Mr. Posniak so severely.
The Posniak case is of course a vivid reminder that in America’s adversarial justice system, prosecutorial discretion looms large. Mr. Posniak is not the only accused person in recent months to apparently succumb to the pressure of criminal prosecution acting upon the excruciating inward dynamics of shame; in August, Bruce Ivins, a scientist suspected in the 2001 anthrax mailings, took his own life just before he was about to be indicted. Yet Mr. Posniak’s life and death are also an urgent invitation for us all to treat each other more humanely and be prepared to accept the consequences of fate. When asked whether she bore ill will toward Mr. Posniak, an 82-year-old woman who lost most of her possessions in the Ham Lake fire, including her great-grandparents’ Norwegian bible, said she did not. Rather than scapegoating Mr. Posniak, she simply spoke of how life can be really hard sometimes. Or, as Yeats once wrote, “we begin to live, when we have conceived of life as a tragedy.”