Causing a catastrophe is a criminal statute in Missouri. and it’s one you may have never heard of.
If you Google the crime of causing a catastrophe in Missouri, you’ll certainly find the name James Scott. He is the only person in the state to ever be convicted of that crime and serving time for it.
Scott was accused of causing the West Quincy levee to fail during the Great Flood of 1993.
He was convicted in 1993 and sentenced to 20 years- to life in prison. He’s been locked up for a quarter of a century now.
Scott agreed to visit with ABC 17 News for a one-on-one interview from the Jefferson City Correctional Center. and to this day- he maintains his innocence.
Scott says, “I can’t sit here and prove to you that I did not break the West Quincy Levee. Yet, they never proved at my trial that I did. Because I did not break the West Quincy Levee. The judge said, ‘We found you guilty on circumstantial evidence.’ I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, I know you did.’ There was no solid evidence.”
Circumstantial evidence is not drawn from direct observation, leaving no absolute proof of guilt.
Hearsay and witness testimony is why James Scott is in prison for life. Hearsay worked for the prosecution in the Scott case, but as soil scientist, engineer and a witness for the defense, Dr. David Hammer says, it was not allowed to try to clear Scott’s name.
Hammer reflected on the trial and said, “One of the things that happened, that just was absolutely unbelievable, I was asked to tell some aspect of the levee breaking scenario and describe why I thought it was a situation that couldn’t have been human-induced. I cited a recently published paper in The Journal Science , which is one of the most prestigious in the world, and the prosecuting attorney asked, “Were you part of the research team?” And I said, “No.” And he said to the court, “Was he was a part of the team that wrote that paper?” And I said “no,” and they said, “It’s inadmissible, your honor. It’s hearsay. If he wasn’t there, it’s hearsay.” Well, what kind of a deal is that? If you can’t even cite peer-reviewed scientific literature in a trial like this where everything that happened is immediate and you have to rely on what you know, what science has taught us about the situation?”
Scott said, “As soon as he got off the stand, the rope was over the tree and I was hung. I was done.”
Hammer said he thinks the evidence in the Scott case was overwhelming and that it was “just absolutely impossible that one person could’ve broken this levee.”
So, who does Scott blame for the levee failure? He blames Mother Nature.
After the Great Flood of ’93, Hammer and other experts analyzed the nearly 1,100 levee breaks along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. He and many experts agree that the West Quincy levee was simply next in line to fail.
In describing the series of levee failures, Hammer said, “Bing, Bing, Bing, Bing. It was number 12 out of 13 in a crest after 90 days of submergence. There were six conditions that were scientifically proven to exacerbate or improve the chance of levee failure. All were present at this particular place.”
Scott admits to petty crimes, arson, run-ins with the law and not being an all-around upstanding Missourian when he was younger. He said that is why he’s in prison, not for actually causing a catastrophe.
Scott said, “I’ve done a lot of dumb stuff in my life, stuff I wish I could take back. I do. But what’s done can’t be undone. I’m the reason I’m sitting here today. I’m not doing time for the West Quincy levee, although that’s why am here. I’m doing time for my, my past.” Holding back tears, Scott said the entire ordeal is exhausting.
When asked if he still has hope, Scott said he still has hope. He said, “I’m hoping that one person, that’s all I need, I need one person to say let’s take a look at this. You know, there’s only two people who know the truth. That’s God and myself.”