How do we know which McLean we can believe?

September 04, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

We do not come to bury Jacqueline McLean, only to question her. The burial, she handled herself. Staring into the abyss, she becomes a woman baring her soul. Before this, she only bared her contempt.

Now she calls herself a thief and declares herself ashamed. She stood there Friday in Criminal Court, with the game already over, and spoke of self-hate. She talked of God, and somebody in the courtroom audience kept saying, "Amen." It had the feel of a religious confession, only the priest was letting the whole congregation in on the secret. Everybody was moved, one way or another.

There's no doubting the depths to which McLean has sunk. She was the city's third-highest official, and now, after months in a mental hospital, she faces the possibility of prison. She was the watchdog of city money, but got caught taking it when she thought nobody was looking. Voice halting, eyes wet, she read from a statement in which she described a profound desire to die.

"I hate a thief," she said, barely stifling a sob. "That's the way my parents taught me. I'm here to say publicly that I'm the thief I've been brought up to hate and detest. . . . I'm cursed to know in vivid detail the things I've done."

It was very moving language, except that it followed so much else. It was confession at the end of two years of stealing and hiding, self-scrutiny at the end of 10 months of state scrutiny, apology at the end of six months of blaming the media, blaming white people, blaming anyone available in order to avoid blame herself, and then the spectacle of her attorneys attempting to deny she'd issued any such blame.

"I'm left without hope," she said Friday. "I feel a sense of being alone. I must get by this day. I must acknowledge acts I committed that I absolutely loathe to think that I did."

It was embarrassing. She seemed to be stripped bare of all defenses, and you wished to give her a robe to drape around her. She seemed like a fighter at the end of a very bad blowout. Everybody showed up to see the action, but nobody expected to see such blood on the floor. You wanted to turn away.

But then other things began to happen: the state prosecutor, Stephen Montanarelli, explaining the details of McLean's cover-up of ownership of property she was leasing to the city, and McLean eyeballing him darkly, only minutes after her naked confession; and her attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, launching into an extended, pugnacious disagreement with a statement of facts to which she'd already agreed.

And then, when it was over, and McLean had been led from the courtroom, here was Gutierrez, lingering behind, fingering a pack of cigarettes in her hand, and declaring, "We maintained from the beginning there was no issue of guilt."

This was grand news to those who had followed these proceedings since November, who watched attorneys bare their fangs in court, who watched earlier this summer as a besieged Judge Elsbeth Bothe struggled to maintain some sense of order in her courtroom while attorneys whipped a barrage of arguments, legal and psychological and otherwise, at her.

Never a question of guilt, Gutierrez maintained, just as there was no question of intent by McLean to do wrong. It was all part of clinical depression, the attorney was saying now, all part of her mental illness. It sounded very '90s: We're all victims, even those of us who victimize.

"Is this what you'll say at sentencing?" Gutierrez was asked.

"The issue of shame for her has been a great one," she replied. "All the psychologists have said she's had three years of severe depression. Depression is a mental illness. She was subject to her own expectations, and the expectations of others.

"This isn't an excuse for what she did," Gutierrez said, "but it's almost a classic example of setting yourself up. She knew. This stealing was release for the self-destructive part of this depression."

In other words, she wanted to be caught. In other words, she knew all along what she was doing, and she did it anyway -- but when she got caught, she attempted to blame others.

So it was pretty emotional there at week's end, when Jacqueline McLean professed to bare her soul. Part of her therapy, said her attorney. A search for forgiveness and redemption, she said.

We can all appreciate such emotions, and only imagine the pain she's endured. She sounded pretty convincing in her contrition. The problem is: She also sounded pretty convincing before, when she was denying everything and casting blame all about. And, at day's end, it's a little tough to tell which Jacqueline McLean she thinks we should believe.

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