Bremer case still a riddle because of judge's haste

January 28, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Arthur Bremer sits quietly in his cell at the Maryland Correctional Institution Institute in Hagerstown, forgotten by history 24 years after he changed the course of it. In Alabama, George Wallace's health deteriorates. In Annapolis last week, Judge Ralph Powers breathed his last. Arthur Bremer keeps his thoughts about such things to himself.

When last heard, Bremer stood between two uniformed guards and declared, "It was said society needs protection from people me. Looking back on my life, I, uh, would have liked it if society had protected me from myself." When last seen, the world was still wondering if Bremer was out of his mind. A quarter-century later, we're still not exactly certain, and Judge Powers, though he lived to be 89, was a little too busy to let us figure things out.

When they brought Bremer to trial, Powers rushed a jury to

judgment. Everybody knew the bare facts of the case, but nobody understood why. Yes, Bremer had pulled the trigger on Wallace at the Laurel Shopping Center, as the Alabama governor ran for the White House and attempted to hold onto the last vestiges of organized racial segregation in this country. Yes, there were witnesses to the shooting. Yes, there was Bremer's ** tortured diary, detailing his desperate pursuit, first of Richard Nixon, then of Wallace.

But the bare facts were never the point. Was Bremer crazy? , t That was the issue. His own attorney called him "a boy who was weird from the day he was born." But, was it just weirdness, or legal insanity? Did he know what he was doing when he pulled the trigger and paralyzed Wallace for life? That was the mystery, and Ralph Powers, described at his death last week as "efficient and no-nonsense," might have taken a little longer to look for an answer.

The trial lasted just five days. The whole country watched this sunlit courtroom in Upper Marlboro, with its parade of psychiatrists, social workers and criminologists tracing the most subtle and complex aspects of Bremer's psyche.

But they were doing it on the run. The trial could only go five days because, on the sixth day, it was explained, Ralph Powers had scheduled his vacation. Nothing would stand in his way, not TC Bremer, not this trial, not the final evaluation of history.

And so the courtroom days necessarily stretched into endless nights, with jurors listening to delicate psychological testimony, some of them glassy-eyed by late afternoon, some of them with their feet propped up on the jury box by nightfall, all of them slumped in their chairs with eyes drooping as the hours stretched toward midnight.

One night, Bremer's diary was read aloud, 113 pages of raw, pathetic failure at love and sex and life in general. Courtroom spectators giggled. At the defense table, Bremer buried his pale face in his arms. Judge Powers, the retired military man, sat erect in his chair, a signal to everyone that if he could take the long hours, so could they.

"My fuse is about burnt," Bremer wrote in his diary. "There's gonna be an explosion soon. I had it. I want something to happen. I was supposed to be dead a week and a day ago. Or at least in a few hours tens of thousands of people and tens of millions of $. I'd just like to take some of them with me and Nixy."

He'd pursued President Nixon to Ottawa, Canada, that April but missed a shot at him when "I took my time to brush my teeth, take two asprin, change my clothes I was so stupid! All my efforts and nothing changed. Just another goddamned failure. I want that goddamn tired of writing about it. About what I was gonna do, about what I failed to do. About what I failed to do again and again."

He was 21 years old. The world wondered: How did he manage to pursue Nixon, and then Wallace, around the country? In spite of failure at several jobs, he had more than $1,000 in cash that spring of 1972, a Browning automatic and a .38 revolver. Where did the money come from? And the transportation and the guns? Such questions might have been answered at his trial, but never were asked. And the other one, which lingers in the air to this day: Was he sane when he pulled the trigger?

"Ask me why I did it and I'd say, 'Nothing else to do,' or 'I have to kill somebody,' " he wrote in his diary one week before confronting Wallace. "That's how far gone I am "

So we're left with Bremer's own analysis as the last word. The shrinks did their best in that courtroom 24 years ago, but sometimes it seemed like justice on the run. Ralph Powers had a vacation waiting. And the jury, having sat numbly through days and nights of rushed, intimate, conflicted psychological testimony, seemed to look after his needs. On that last afternoon, over lunch, they took just one hour to find Bremer sane and guilty.

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