From Mississippi to Boston, it’s the accusation that lingers

“I’m still waiting for an apology,” said Paul Kevin Curtis, the 45-year-old Mississippi man once charged by federal authorities with sending ricin-laced letters to the White House, a U.S. senator and a county judge.

You could see the relief in his face as he faced the cameras to proclaim his innocence and tell his story once the charges were dropped. I was happy for him, I admit. Just sharing a last name with the one-time suspect opened the door for too many jokes about my Mississippi “cousin,” though my minor annoyance is nowhere close to the toll the episode took on the life of Curtis and those close to him. That’s why you also heard his frustration.

Authorities say they have found no substantive link to Curtis and the letters — though since the charges were dropped without prejudice, they could be reinstated. Attention now turns to another suspect, involved in a feud with Curtis.

Given the past week of tragic news, everyone wants answers. But as more people — from Mississippi to Boston — are suspected then cleared of horrible crimes, it raises more questions. What is the lasting effect if you’re caught “trending” as the news of the day? Your name lingers, part of an electronic and social media trail that lasts forever.

The family of the missing Brown University student used the moment to remind others of a personal quest to find him. But of course, having a loved one’s name connected to terrorist murders no doubt added to family members’ anguish. Since I don’t want to add one more link to the trail, I won’t name him again

Will the high-school runner of Moroccan descent have to explain in his college application essays how and why his image pops up as one of a pair of front-page tabloid “bag men”?

A Saudi national witness injured in the Boston Marathon bombing, who volunteered to have his apartment searched by police, is still the subject of conspiracy suspicions, though authorities have said he is not a suspect.

Once the FBI released pictures of suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, it probably smoked them out and precipitated their flight.

Also, though, missteps by media organizations in the last week were complicated by arm-chair online detectives who imagined themselves Sherlock Holmes as they sifted through clues and snatches of information grabbed from police scanners; instead, they turned out to be Inspector Clouseau.

I could sympathize with Curtis in his rambling interview. Before he was charged, most of us knew nothing about his conspiracy theory about underground trafficking in human body parts or his cyber-harassment arrests. Now we do. But none of it can compare to accusations of sending poison to public officials.

When Curtis, in his own words, got to the part about telling officials who came to search his house for ricin that “I don’t cook rice,” it sounded suspiciously like stand-up or an audition for his next gig as an Elvis impersonator.

Yet I don’t blame him for stretching out his media moment. The stories clearing a suspect, the “never mind” finish to the drama, are never as prominent as the breaking news bulletins that share that name with the world. Years from now, when his name pops up in connection with a 2013 threat against the president of the United States, the Curtis press conference will at least provide needed comic relief.

 

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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Diana Reese · April 24, 2013