Try as they might, Orange County prosecutors could not conclusively prove that Angelika Graswald did anything that caused the death of her fiance in 2015. But they could keep up the pressure, could take advantage of someone with a limited understanding of English and a troubled personality and pressure her into a questionable confession and eventually a guilty plea to a lesser charge.
Those are the lessons contained in documents recently unsealed in the case, documents that deserve more than the cavalier response that prosecutors gave when asked to comment:
“Since Ms. Graswald pled guilty to criminally negligent homicide and has been sentenced, the case is over, and as such we have no further comment, particularly since she has filed a notice to appeal,” said Chief Assistant District Attorney Christopher Borek.
We know that. But we also know that prosecutors were very adept at misleading the public when it came to this case, focusing time and again on facts that turned out not to be facts, on causes that turned out not to be causes, on a presumption of guilt that took hold early and never wavered.
Consider the missing plug in the kayak. Prosecutors left no doubt that she had removed it, that the missing plug caused the kayak her fiance was in to fill with water and ultimately caused him to drown.
But the larger story, as prosecutors discovered but did not share with the public at the time, was very different. Kayaking experts doubted that the missing plug could have had that effect. Even those who have infrequently used a kayak were puzzled about this. And when prosecutors discovered through photographs that the plug had been missing for quite some time, instead of rethinking their case, they merely pulled back on their demands and went for a plea agreement to a lesser charge.
If the prosecutor in charge of the case will not talk, then it is up to the district attorney, David Hoovler, to speak up because this is not just about one case. The story that the documents show is one in which his office used all the formidable powers it has to put pressure on a suspect regardless of the evidence and the mental state of the person under questioning.
If this can happen to Angelika Graswald, then it can happen to anyone who has the unfortunate bad luck to be in Orange County when there may have been a crime.
When the theory of a case continues to erode, as was the situation here, prosecutors need to reevaluate their theories, need to make sure that there was a crime and that the person under suspicion did something criminal.
The newly unsealed documents can easily be used to reach a different conclusion. Angelika Graswald’s fiance died because he had too much alcohol, was not in control of his kayak on a rough day on the Hudson, did not take the proper safety precautions. There is almost nothing in the papers linking her to criminal activity. Yet the best that the DA’s office can say is that she pled guilty.
We know that. But we don’t know if she was.