The Universal Notebook: Defending the Spencers

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Were I a prudent man, I would probably let well-enough alone and not comment on the Falmouth High School underage drinking case. But I am not, so I will.

Back when news first broke that a party to celebrate a Falmouth baseball championship at the home of Paula and Barry Spencer had gotten out of hand and some students were found to have been drinking, I got the expected call from a reporter to ask what I thought about it. I tend to get trotted out every few years when there is an underage drinking incident in greater Portland because back in 1999, I was involved in a similar situation after a Yarmouth High School prom.

For anyone interested in the sordid details, I tell the whole story in one of the essays in “Backyard Maine,” but suffice it to say that the Yarmouth prom fiasco was front-page news for a week and brought John Stossel of “20/20” to town to interview me. I said back then, and I say now, that I would not advocate that anyone do what I did, but I did what I felt I had to do at the time to help keep kids safe on a very vulnerable evening.

Another father and I stood guard outside a party at which 300-plus teenagers celebrated, let off steam and, yes, drank beer. Our all-night vigil earned us the designation “gatekeepers.” The fact that I was on the School Committee at the time only aggravated the situation.

It wasn’t my home, I did not supply alcohol, I did inform the police beforehand of what was going on, and, fortunately, no one got hurt. But I realized almost as soon as the party got going that it could have gotten wildly out of control very quickly. One of the reasons it didn’t, I like to think, is that the students respected us for trying to protect them.

In any event, when the reporter recently called to ask what I thought about the Spencers, I said I didn’t think anyone knew enough about the situation to judge whether they were guilty of anything or not. People were rushing to judgment.

If what the Spencers did constituted a crime, half the parents I know would be convicted criminals. The reason the Spencers’ case ended in a deadlocked jury was that responsible adults could easily imagine themselves caught in just such a situation. The Spencers didn’t furnish alcohol to minors and they did not intend to furnish a place for minors to consume alcohol.

The fact that stellar student-athletes, good kids with bright futures, could show up with 30-packs suggests that little, if anything, about our underage drinking laws and school athletic codes works. The Falmouth baseball and lacrosse teams, their friends and fans would have found another place to party if the Spencers had not hosted the championship celebration.

I had a few parents call me during the Spencers’ trial to say they thought the couple was being railroaded and that I ought to write a column in their defense. I decided to await the outcome of the trial, both because I don’t know the Spencers and I didn’t know the facts. The facts suggest the Spencers were not guilty of anything.

The outcome was – and should have been left at – a hung jury, half favoring conviction, half exoneration. It turned into a bad outcome when the Spencers had to agree to pay a $12,000 fine, make a $5,000 donation to a victim’s compensation fund, and do 100 hours of community service each in order to avoid being prosecuted again. There’s a word for that, and it’s not justice.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.