Investigators in Illinois are trying to determine what may have driven a political science professor to fatally shoot his two young sons, 12 and 14, before killing himself. Time
EDITOR'S NOTE: A version of this essay also appears in the Columbia Journalism Review.
I was crashing on deadline when the emails started flowing into my inbox. Hope Hicks, the White House communications director — who had been with President Trump since long before he announced his candidacy — had just unexpectedly resigned.
I got confirmation of Hicks's departure at 4:36 p.m. A minute later, I started getting a flood of emails from P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political science professor who taught at Northern Illinois University and Rock Valley College. In 10 emails containing 65 spreadsheets, he was sending his entire data set of more than 30,000 presidential pardons and commutations.
The first email said simply, "Would want you to have this and use freely."
I had already gotten nine of the emails before I noticed them, but I immediately recognized that this was the data set — the one that made him such an essential expert on any story about presidential pardons. It was data I had often asked him to share, unsuccessfully, and now here it was, unsolicited, and out of the blue.
"I was just thinking about you today — and your data. I’ll call you when I’m off deadline," I responded.
I didn't end up calling until almost 48 hours later. I left a message asking if everything was OK. If I had called right away, would he have picked up? And if so, would I have recognized that he was about to do something so terrible? Could I have stopped it?
It's a terrible burden, and one I would soon learn that I shared. "The amount of second-guessing we're doing now is unbearable," one of Ruckman's former colleagues told me.
At the time, I figured something had happened. I had asked for the data before, but he said he wanted to keep it close while he worked on a book in the history of clemency. According to his resumé, it was to be called Pardon Me, Mr. President: Adventures in Crime, Politics and Mercy. Maybe his book deal fell through, I thought. Or maybe there never was one. Maybe he was sick. I was concerned.
By Monday afternoon — now five days after the emails — I still hadn't heard back, which was somewhat unusual. I went to his Twitter feed and his blog and saw no recent posts. I did a Google news search and found a headline in the Rockford Register Star from Saturday: "Sheriff’s department investigates double murder-suicide at home of RVC professor P.S. Ruckman Jr.”
His sons, found shot to death in their bedrooms in Ruckman’s house outside Rockford, Ill., had not been to school since Wednesday — the day of the emails.
Christopher, 14, and Jack, 12, were students at Rockford Christian Schools. They were brothers and best friends, adventurous and musical prodigies — Christopher with the guitar, Jack on the drums. At their funeral last week, they were described as inseparable, social, popular and big-hearted.
My heart sank. I wrapped up my work and headed home. I didn't even tell my editor I was leaving.
On the way home, I called the Winnebago County Sheriff's Office, in case the emails helped to pin down a timeline or establish his intent. (On the advice of our lawyers, I did not provide the emails or the data set itself.) The detective said the emails were potentially significant, and seemed particularly interested in the value the data had to Ruckman. For him to suddenly give it away — something he had previously been unwilling to do — might demonstrate that he was wrapping up his affairs.
And if nothing else, it should help to debunk the conspiracy theories that would inevitably pop up, he said.
(What conspiracy theories? I thought. That was before I read my Twitter feed. Presidential pardons are a fertile ground for crackpot theories, although it's hard to say how a historical database of historical pardons that are already a matter of public record would unearth some hidden conspiracy.)
The data set does have value for any serious scholar or journalist of presidential pardons — arguably the most absolute and unchecked power that the president has. For one thing, it shows just how much the pardon power has atrophied.
I have a background in computer-assisted reporting, so when I first started examining presidential clemency in 2015 I quickly gravitated to Ruckman. He was an important source for stories showing that President Obama was granting pardons on older cases than any president in history — an average of 23 years after the conviction. When another source leaked internal memos showing Obama had made few changes to former President George W. Bush's pardon policy, I used Ruckman data to help show Obama was denying a higher percentage of pardon applications. And when I figured out that the White House count of clemency actions was off by one because one offender refused the conditions of his commutation, Ruckman was able to tell me how unusual that is: it had happened just 16 times before.
Devoid of the present context, his insights were irrefutably valuable. They allowed me to write stories that won the Gerald R. Ford Foundation Award for Distinguished Reporting of the Presidency in 2017. But in the wake of what has happened since, it's become impossible to think about that award without an overwhelming sense of awkward regret.
Ruckman was a scholar, but also an advocate. Through his blog and in op-ed pieces, he advocated for a more regular, robust use of the presidential pardon power to correct injustices and show mercy. Though he never said so, I got the impression that those views were informed by Christian values of redemption, forgiveness and mercy.
I'm struggling to reconcile those ideals with his final acts: In his final moments, Ruckman took steps to preserve his professional legacy, even as he apparently plotted to take his own life — and those of his two innocent sons.
"It is a horrific and unimaginable crime, and no circumstances would conceivably justify or mitigate it," said Mark Osler, a University of St. Thomas law professor who was one of nine people to receive the emails. "It seems that the killing was thought out, planned, rather than impulsive. He preserved his work by sending it out to me and others."
So what, then, should become of that legacy? Some have suggested that I verify the data before using it. That’s impractical, and I have no doubts about the quality of his research. Others say I should report on it, but not give Ruckman credit. That, it seems to me, would violate basic journalistic standards. It's not a matter of credit, but of properly attributing the source of the data.
"It's irreplaceable," said George Lardner, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter who's retired from The Washington Post and who collaborated with Ruckman on an unpublished book about pardons, Guilty No More. (Ruckman's resumé says he's the co-author, but Lardner said he did all of the writing based on Ruckman's research.)
"The data's important and stands on its own, quite apart from what he did to his kids and himself," Lardner said.
Ruckman told me that he assembled the data through painstaking and meticulous research at the National Archives, transcribing thousands of individual clemency warrants into spreadsheets.
But the truth may be more complicated: In looking at the metadata in the spreadsheets this week, I discovered that 20 of them were created not by Ruckman but by Richard Posner, a retired US District Judge and well-regarded legal scholar. It appears they agreed to swap data to put together a complete historical index of every presidential clemency action. (Through an assistant, Posner said he never met Ruckman and “has nothing to say about him.”)
I never met Ruckman, either. I didn't even know his name was Peter — he had always gone by the initials P.S. professionally. He struck me as smart, hard-working, and occasionally moody. I also know he was proud of his sons. Last year, he sent me a link to a YouTube video showing one of them, Christopher, playing the guitar. "Just thought I'd share," he wrote.
But over the last week, I've also heard from dozens of people who knew Ruckman or his work: Colleagues, friends, and former students — as well as friends of his ex-wife or people who knew the Ruckman boys through their school or their music.
What emerged is a complicated and sometimes contradictory portrait: A dedicated professor who took pride in the success of his students. An arrogant and insecure academic. A Christian still coming to terms with the severe theology of his father, a well-known evangelist preacher. A devoted father. An emotionally unraveling colleague. A narcissistic monster.
A close friend of Ruckman’s ex-wife — the boys' mother — reached out to me with a plea. Like many who spoke to me, she did not want her name used.
"Please, do not glorify him," she said. "I beg you, do something positive with that data and publish it in the memory not of him, but of Christopher and Jack, who deserve to leave a legacy. They had no choice. You do."
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