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Why the Runaway Bride Should Neither Be Prosecuted, Nor Fined

Tuesday, May. 10, 2005

When Julia Roberts did it in a movie, it was cute. But when it happens in real life, that's another thing. And America is not finding runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks adorable - not in any way.

Is that reaction fair? And what punishment, if any, would be just, in light of Wilbanks' actions? In this column, I will consider those very questions.

Does Wilbanks Deserve Our Sympathy?

MSNBC Senior Producer and bride-to-be Nina Bradley is one of those who condemns Wilbanks harshly. Like Wilbanks, Bradley is thirty-two years old; like Wilbanks, she's been involved in onerous wedding planning chores. Yet, Bradley writes, if she were Wilbanks, she never would have run away, leaving her frantic family to fear the worst. Instead, Bradley would have called up a family member or a friend - perhaps one of her bridesmaids (Wilbanks had a whopping fourteen) - to talk about her "cold feet."

"How dare she do this to a sympathetic public?" Bradley writes. "I have no sympathy for her."

That's right, of course: Bradley isn't Wilbanks - and, more to the point, Wilbanks isn't Bradley. Bradley plainly has close friends and family she feels that she could talk to; Wilbanks, at least the time, didn't feel that way. Sometimes having fourteen bridesmaids can be a lot lonelier than having just a few.

The whole point of sympathy - as opposed to empathy - is to be able to extend understanding to even those who are very different from you, and who act very differently than you would act in their place. So, in my opinion, Wilbanks deserves the sympathy of Bradley - and America - precisely because she wasn't together enough to do anything but flee. It is her difference that makes it a challenge to feel for her.

Wilbanks's panicked flight testifies to just how extreme her emotional reaction to her upcoming wedding must have been. Others wouldn't have had the same reaction; but she did.

Wilbanks - a marathoner - is probably no fragile flower. Yet she perceived the pressure on her as so intense, that she panicked and opted out. This woman was used to pushing through after the twenty-fifth mile. What caused her to flee in the face of a mere wedding?

The answer: It must not have been a mere wedding, to her; it must have been much more. For some reason, to her it represented a serious trauma from which she felt she had to escape. Wilbanks's own statement - issued May 5 - rings true to me: She said she ran away in light of "a host of compelling issues which seemed out of control."

Not only did she feel she had to run away, she also felt she had to lie. She falsely told her fiancé she was heading out for a quick jog, leaving behind her keys, wallet, and engagement ring - with the result that a manhunt was launched. And worse, she lied to police and her fiancé later, claiming, at first, that she had been kidnapped (and blaming a "white woman" and a "Hispanic man"), then freed.

Her extreme, erratic, and irrational actions have drawn a lot of condemnation. But as a barometer of her extreme emotional condition, they should, instead, be eliciting a lot of sympathy. Moreover, those who are reluctant to offer sympathy, should be equally reluctant to pass judgment - at least until a better understanding of Wilbanks's motivations for fleeing comes to light.

Wilbanks's slowness in offering a full apology for her actions - it was not offered until her May 5 statement -- has also drawn criticism. But such an apology was likely more sincere after Wilbanks had some time to think through why she did what she did.

A canny, calculating person would doubtless have been ready with an apology as soon as the T.V. cameras came to town. That Wilbanks wasn't, doesn't mean she isn't sorry. Should we really fault Wilbanks for not being camera-ready immediately?

Many Have Recommended that a Harsh Penalty Should Be Inflicted on Wilbanks

Some have now called for Wilbanks's prosecution on criminal charges of filing a false police report, and making false statements to investigators. If she's found to have been mentally disturbed at the time, however, she probably would be acquitted of such charges. That's because crime requires not just "actus reus" - a criminal act - but also "mens rea" - criminal intent - and she would probably be found to lack that intent.

Others have suggested that she pay the cost of the law enforcement search for her - estimates I've seen range between $40,000 and $60,000. (And those amounts may not account for the time of the many volunteers who joined the search.) Reportedly, Wilbanks and her family may offer to pay at least some of this cost voluntarily, as a way of making amends.

But does Wilbanks deserve a harsher punishment? Many think so. If Wilbanks is not prosecuted, Debra J. Saunders of the San Francisco Chronicle complains, then "you know you live in a country where actions mean nothing." In response to the comments of Wilbanks's father suggesting that she just needs "space and time," Saunders agrees -- "as long as the space is a cot in a jail cell and the time is spent reflecting behind bars."

Meanwhile, a resident of Wilbanks's hometown seems to think exile is more in order. The L.A. Times reports that Duluth, Georgia resident Glenn DelConte opined that "I don't think it would be the best idea if she decided to live here" if she and her fiancé marry. "The next county down the road might be a better idea," he suggested.

Did the False Accusations Against a "Hispanic" Damage the Hispanic Community and Make Wilbanks Less Sympathetic?

Particularly - and rightly -- troubling to many is that Wilbanks said one of her kidnappers was Hispanic. This comment shows that Wilbanks was probably herself racist, or, at a minimum, that she was catering to racism; perhaps she thought her story would be more plausible if she claimed one of the perpetrators was Hispanic.

If she had not reneged, her claim could even have led to the wrongful conviction of an innocent man. Certainly, Wilbanks owes Hispanics an apology, and ought to amend her way of thinking.

But in the end, the quickly-retracted claim ended up doing little real damage to the image and standing of Hispanics. Like child-killer Susan Smith's false claim that an African-American man had stolen her car - with her children in it - at gunpoint, Wilbanks' remark is now a reminder of why assuming a perpetrator is likely to be a person of color is sheer folly. It's also a reminder that a white "victim" who is blaming a person of color may, in some cases, be doing so to refocus attention away from herself.

I'm not saying, of course, that more false accusations against people of color should be made. I'm just pointing out the irony in which a false, racist accusation turns out to be both a rebuttal of racism -- once the false claim is retracted -- and a cautionary tale.

Why Inflicting a Harsh Penalty on Wilbanks Won't Do Her, Or Society, Any Good

Assuming Wilbanks does apologize, as her attorney has indicated she will, what else should happen to her?

In my view, nothing. She should be able to go on with her life, live where she chooses, and continue to get the help she needs.

Some have expressed doubt as to whether Wilbanks is mentally ill. Yet how could she not be? She acted irrationally and erratically over a period of several days. The way she acted was, apparently, deeply out of character for her. (Wilbanks does reportedly have two shoplifting offenses in her past, from 1996 and 1998, one minor and one major, but this conduct is in a whole different league.)

No wonder, then, that police did not believe she was a runaway bride while she was missing. Indeed, Police Chief Randy Belcher said at the time, "We don't believe the wedding had anything to do with it."

A friend described Wilbanks as a "caring person" who dreamed of being a mother. Plainly, she was not the heartless person Op Eds now caricature. It's a lot more likely that she suddenly became sick, than that she suddenly became evil.

From the evidence publicly available, then, it seems Wilbanks probably had some kind of psychological break - departing radically from the person she used to be. Would anyone be surprised if she were found to have had a "silent stroke," or to have been clinically depressed, when she left? Radical personality change is a symptom of a number of diseases - severe ones.

Prison - or even the guilt over a heavy fine her family would have to pay - could send Wilbanks over the edge into suicide, or a greater depression. Mandating counseling would be fine - but it seems she has already sought it. In her statement, she said, "I have started professional treatment voluntarily."

What about a sentence of community service, as some have suggested? One problem with this suggestion is that, in a now-hostile small town, it may be very traumatic.

Remember Glenn DelConte, who suggested that Wilbanks and her fiancé move out of town? He also went so far as to drive by the fiancé's house to shout, "Don't marry her." Might DelConte, or someone like him, taunt Wilbanks as she performs the service? Can anyone do community service properly when the whole community is whispering about her behind her back?

Part of Wilbanks' apology ought to be a promise to volunteer - but on her own time, so that she can recover, and in another place if she so chooses.

Finally, it's worth pointing out that it's not just better for her and her family and friends if she makes it through - it's better for society. Wilbanks works as a medical technician. If she gets better, she could continue to help others - if only we, as a society, don't insist on harming her so much, that she no longer can.

Julie Hilden, a FindLaw columnist, practiced First Amendment law at the D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly from 1996-99. Hilden also has experience in criminal motions and appeals. Hilden's first novel, 3, was published recently. In reviewing 3, Kirkus Reviews praised Hilden's "rather uncanny abilities," and Counterpunch called it "a must read.... a work of art." Hilden's website,, includes MP3 and text downloads of the novel's first chapter.

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