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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Murder is still suspected

Early on Monday morning, Nov. 1, 2004--the day before the 2004 election-- a janitor for Seymour Hall at Northern State University came to work to open up the building. He found a body lying at one of the building's western entrances, which were in a courtyard enclosed by the building's two wings. It was the body of Prof. Morgan Lewis, a young professor of German, who had started teaching at the University that fall. Prof. Lewis had a gunshot wound at the back of his neck. Police later found the gun in a dumpster located on the southern end of Seymour Hall.

Initially, the coroner termed the death of Prof. Lewis murder. However, the Aberdeen Police Dept. equivocated. At the time, the Police Department was beset by internal turmoils. Factions within the Department were in constant dispute. A new chief had fired some officers--firings which later were determined to be improper. And shortly after the death of Prof. Lewis, the policeman assigned to patrol NSU resigned. Apparently he and the chief were in disagreement over the handling of the Lewis case.

The previous chief, also, had been fired for "personnel" reasons, which means the files are closed and the citizens cannot find out just what is wrong at the Police Department.

The office building where Prof. Lewis' body was found is where my office was for 20 years. I went in and out numerous times during the day. After I retired, I often walked by the building. The courtyard where Prof. Lewis died took on an eerie aspect, as I walked by the doorway and thought how many times I passed through it at all hours of the day and night. Like many professors who have tons of papers to read, I stayed in the office late at night, came early in the morning, and sometimes after a few hours rest, would come in at 3 or 4 in the morning to get the work done. Once a violent death occurs at such a place, it becomes a reminder of the event.

Prof. Lewis' death no longer has its marker. A few weeks ago, Seymour Hall was demolished. I am not sure why. The building had its problems. When first designed, it was a replica of a building on the Harvard Square. However, by the time the state legislature registered its preferences, the building was considerably diminished in cost and accommodations. When the University tried to upgrade the building to meet the standards established for access by the disabled, it found the costs prohibitive. At one point, its site was proposed for the University's new tech center.

Even with its inadequacies, the building had some merits. For many years, it housed the reading clinic. It provided offices for departments and professors in the humanties. Most of them have moved to the new tech center where the offices are so small, they are no improvement.

I strongly suspect that the decision to remove the building was motivated largely with the intention of removing the reminder of Prof. Lewis' death--which still in the minds of many remains "suspicious."

In 2005, the chief of police held a news conference in which he declared the death to be a suicide and the case was closed. The coroner subsequently changed the cause of death from murder to suicide.

The death is still suspicious because conflicting evidence and testimony were never reconciled. The case was closed and in South Dakota the records are also closed so that the people can never know the nature of the case or the process by which a conclusion was reached.

Suspicion and dissatisfaction remain. An anonymous commenter put a note on Todd Epp's South Dakota Watch recently which stated that the writer was a police officer who worked the case and said he/she still considered the case a murder. The writer alluded to another death on campus in which a young man died of injuries in the lobby of Jerde Hall, a dormitory. Charges were filed against another young man, but were eventually dropped and the death was termd accidental. The writer of the comment suggested that for public relations reasons, the community might find deaths by accident and suicide preferable to murder.

That may be so. Until the people of South Dakota have the right to examine the records of how the officials they hire perform, they can reasonably assume that something is being covered up. Striaghtforward investigations are made public.

Prof. Lewis' death remains suspicious. So do its investigators.

1 comment:

PP said...

Actually, the Board of Regents has a nasty habit of knocking down buildings on whim, such as when they do it with historical properties without bothering to ask historical boards if they can or should.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States