I May Be Guilty Of A Lot Of Things, But I’m Not Guilty Of This…

I May Be Guilty Of A Lot Of Things, But I’m Not Guilty Of This… July 11, 2019

Me in the treehouse days, proudly wearing antennae.

My dad built me a treehouse when I was a kid. It wasn’t actually in a tree but stood on four sturdy posts over the sandbox he also made for me. My friends and I loved our hidden clubhouse. You could tightly squeeze maybe five kids in there if they were all small. This tiny hut on stilts in the far corner of my backyard served as many things. It was a post-office once, and the birch tree leaves scattered across my yard were stamps. It was, at one point, a bank that dealt with the pinecone currency. It was often a home, maybe with two moms, a dad, a dinosaur and triplet babies or maybe things were more status quo, and there was just an only child with a mom and a dad who like to cook spaghetti. Whatever it was, I loved it, and I kept it clean, and I would spend hours alone up there, redecorating.

Redecorating meant I would often sneak into my dad’s old paint can collection, find a colour I liked, and ruin a perfectly good outfit repainting the interior of my tiny Taj Mahal. Needless to say, little GM got in trouble from time to time. Whenever any paint went missing or, pink handprints were on the bathroom tap, or there were telltale and very blue signs of having been within the proximity of paint on my brand new dress, my parents knew: she painted the treehouse again.

No matter how many times I got in trouble, or spent an evening watching my mom scrub oil-based paints out of my white Keds while cursing under her breath; no matter how many times my parents made me swear I would leave the paints alone, I would do it again. I’d find myself sitting alone in my treehouse, looking around in disapproval at the previous interior design choices and think, if I quickly throw some yellow on that wall over there, no one will know.

But they always did. Either the yellow drag marks around the back patio from my Bassett hound’s paint-dipped ears would give it away, or it was the blob of yellow in my ear canal from that itch I got right after grabbing a fully submerged paintbrush. I never got away with it.

One Saturday morning, I woke up, sat in my treehouse by myself and decided I needed the front wall to be purple. I wasn’t sure if we had any purple interior paint, so I climbed down the treehouse ladder and made my way to the shed where dad kept all the stores of leftover paints. When I went to open the door, I noticed it was already ajar. As the full interior of the shed came into view, I saw multiple cans of paint knocked over and one can, labelled eggshell white, was leaking all over the shed floor. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice before I stepped in it. Turning to find my parents, I left little white Ked footprints across our back cement patio. I had to let them know. They would want to know, right?

“Mom! Dad!” I called my parents, who were still in bed. I ran upstairs as fast as I could. When I made it to their bedside, I hurriedly explained what I’d seen in the shed.

“Someone knocked over all the paint and its leaking!” Thinking, of course, that I was doing the right thing.

“Honey, were you painting your treehouse again?” My mom yawned and rolled over to look at me.

“Porkchop, did you spill the paint?” My dad grumbled into his pillow with his back to me.

I couldn’t believe it. My parents thought it was me. Of course, grown-up me totally gets this. I looked as guilty as OJ Simpson on a road trip with Al Cowlings. I’d established a pretty rock solid pattern of behaviour in the months leading up to this day, and I’d proven that no matter what my parents said or did, I was still going for that paint. Hell, I was even going for the paint and breaking all the rules on the morning in question. It just so happened, I wasn’t the one who spilt the eggshell white. Soon enough, my parents would get out of bed and follow size two Keds tracks out to the shed and see the mess for themselves. There is no doubt; I was the clear suspect in this case. I understand this now. I get it. Now.

Back then, however, it felt like a grave injustice. Every time I tried to explain more, it seemed like my parents believed me less. Somewhere out there, there was a culprit who couldn’t have framed me better if they’d tried. Maybe it was a curious racoon as these bin bandits often found their way into our yard and our garbage every night. Perhaps it was a thief. We’d had our bikes stolen from our shed before. Maybe the neighbour’s cat had breached the perimeter of our yard, with little regard for property lines or the fact that my dad was allergic. Whoever it was, they’d unknowingly pinned me with a crime I did not commit.

I set out to prove my innocence. It didn’t take long for me to sort out that there was no way, with the technology available to me (my seven-year-old eyes and intellect), to find the real perpetrator. He, she, they or it had left behind nothing. Not a clump of fur caught in the shed door jam; not a paw or fingerprint on a single paint can. Of course, these were pre-DNA times, but even if they hadn’t been, my treehouse had a colourful void where a forensic lab might be.

All I could do was ask the neighbours if they saw anything. The likelihood of this crime being committed in the dark of night as the neighbourhood slept was high. As such, no one had seen a thing.

The colour on the walls inside my treehouse faded as I spent months forcing myself to stay away from the paint. Oh, but it was excruciating. To expect a born creative to limit herself to but one colour? To force her to watch as the shifting sunlight transforms a once-vibrant paint-job into a peeling mess of grey? It was torture, but it was better than being wrongfully accused of something I had not done. The weight of these accusations was heavy for weeks afterwards. In my little kid brain, I felt that if I didn’t offend again, maybe someone would believe me that that the eggshell spill wasn’t my fault.

It didn’t work. I am sure that to this day, my parents still believe I was the culprit in this oil-based debacle. That is, if they remember it at all, which is unlikely. I remember because I was the accused. I was the victim of this considerable cruelty. I was the one whose sense of justice was deeply bruised by this significant unfairness. I’d spilt a lot of paint, but I didn’t tip that paint, and I can feel that sense of injustice, still, to this day.

I know you can relate to this story. Maybe you didn’t spill any paint. Maybe your little brother stole a cookie, and you got blamed for it. Perhaps a friend accused you of stealing their baseball cards. You know this feeling of injustice — the sting, deep in your chest; heartbreak for being blamed for something you’ve not done.

It doesn’t get more comfortable as you grow up. Crimes and consequences carry more and more weight the older you become, and being wrongfully accused can become a matter of life and death. Stomping a Keds-clad foot and declaring that things are unfair gives way to lawyers, imprisonment and penalties that we can’t undo when the truth becomes clear.

I want you to recall that feeling. The emotions that led you to tears when you were a child and the blame fell unjustly on you. Recall how helpless you felt when you couldn’t prove your innocence; when no one believed you. I want you to think about all of those feelings of unfairness we’ve all felt.

And then I want you to read this:

Reasonable Doubt – America’s Epidemic of Wrongful Convictions

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Image: Copyright Courtney Heard

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