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June 15, 2024


CONSEQUENCE? Or the slippery art of getting off scot free


“An eye for an eye will the leave whole world blind” (said Gandhi), so I don’t believe in the petty tit-for-tat of revenge, but I do think, and our justice system generally agrees, that criminal acts should beget appropriate and humane punishments.

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However, there’s plenty of men—admit it, it’s mostly men—who do terrible things, get convicted by a judge/jury in our esteemed American court of said terrible things and…(next to) nothing happens.

Exhibit 1: OJ “if the glove don’t fit, acquit” Simpson, who gets off on double homicide in 1995 (though in 1997 is unanimously found guilty in a civil suit and fined $34M for which he has only paid a pittance by his death in 2024), for the stabbing deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman outside her LA condo in 1994. Then, he astoundingly puts his name on a ghostwritten book called If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer in 2006. All just “hypothetical” of course, as he does at least serve a nine-year sentence in Nevada in 2008 for 12 counts of armed robbery and kidnapping at gunpoint two sports memorabilia dealers, as you do.

Exhibit 2: Ugly ogre Harvey “this is a setup” Weinstein, convicted of rape in 2020 (after being publicly accused by over 100 women who sprouted the #MeToo movement), only serves a few years of his 23-year sentence for the crime, when suddenly he’s not. He, to the horror of his victims this spring, gets off on an appeal pending a new trial in New York. (Granted, he’s got plenty of time to serve now in Cali to make up for that, but still: these women who were among the handful allowed to bravely testify in the hopes that their nightmare would end at last, now get to confront further re-traumatization.)

Exhibit 3: Donald “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK” Trump, of course, just convicted very decisively of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records re: the hush money of his extramarital dalliance with a porn star. Yet I wanted to rain on the parades of the giddy online celebrators of the left—this too will come to nothing; in fact, it may even help him win. I listen to NPR in the mornings as I get ready for work, and the next day, when WNYC Morning Edition transitions to 9 am BBC as it always does, the foreigners were just scratching their heads over this insane American lack of policy when it comes to Presidential-grade misbehavior. Perhaps he will be fined, maybe he will get some probationary slap. But prison? Getting kicked off the ballot? Nah. So there’s nothing in the Constitution that prohibits a convicted felon from running in a Presidential election, winning, and even serving, really?!, the British reporter seemed to ask the US scholar incredulously. Nope, nothing to stop him. Especially not his conscience. Crikey!

Not only are there often no negative consequences of such bad acts, but in fact, there are rewards. For all three of these men, there is increased fame built into their infamy. And it’s important to note, their getting-off might have a ton to do with them already being rich and famous. Any attention to a narcissist is good attention, and they got more of that than ever. I intend to write in a future post about the twisted phenomenon of how male murderers in jail always get fan mail that often grows into lovers/wives. If they play the hero, it can be the fallen one. Weinstein bent over a pathetic walker. I overheard my coworker watching Fox News in the cafeteria during Trump’s trial; “the poor man,” she said with sympathy. After his stupefying amount of confirmed guilt, Trump’s campaign raised nearly $53M in less than 24 hours.

The worst of watching this from our somewhat safe distance from the staff cafe is a serious existential threat to our notions of reality and rationality—instead it seems I’m trying to raise girls in a world where actions have no meaning, where facts have no bearing, where convictions have no consequence, where men, even the bribed biased members of the SCOTUS, can get off…


If you’re like me and you’ve heard the term scot free out loud more than you’ve seen it in print, you might have assumed this was spelled like the name Scott. Who’s Scott?

From, we learn: It’s not Scott, and it definitely doesn’t have anything to do with Dred Scott, who many in the US might think of when they hear these words. Dred Scott was a black man enslaved in Virginia in 1799. In multiple failed court cases he attempted to win back his freedom, taking his legal fight all the way up to the US Supreme Court in 1857, until his “owners,” the Blow family, eventually proclaimed him “free.”

Neither does this have anything to do with the Scottish. Rather,

‘Skat’ is a Scandinavian word for tax or payment and the word migrated to Britain and mutated into ‘scot’ as the name of a redistributive taxation, levied as early the 10th century as a form of municipal poor relief.

‘Scot’ as a term for tax has been used since then in various forms—Church scot, Rome scot, Soul scot and so on. Whatever the tax, the phrase ‘getting off scot free’ simply refers to not paying one’s taxes.

No one likes paying tax and people have been getting off scot free since at least the 11th century. The first reference in print to ‘scot free’ is in a forged copy of the Writ of Edward the Confessor. We don’t have a precise date for the forged version of the writ but Edward died in 1066 and the copy was made sometime in the 13th century. Either way it was a long time before Dred Scott got his freedom.

And how did tax evasion morph into escaping punishment?

The use of the figurative version of the phrase, that is, one where no actual scot tax was paid but in which someone escapes custody, began in the 16th century, as in this example from John Maplet’s natural history Green Forest, 1567:

“Daniell scaped scotchfree by Gods prouidence.”

‘Scotchfree’ was a variant based on a mishearing. An example of the currently used form, that is, ‘scot free’, comes a few years later, in the English author Robert Greene’s The Historie of Dorastus and Fawnia, 1588:

“These and the like considerations something daunted Pandosto his courage, so that hee was content rather to put up a manifest injurie with peace, then hunt after revenge, dishonor and losse; determining since Egistus had escaped scot-free.”

So, the first people to go scot free weren’t from the 19th century but the 16th, and not American or Scottish, but English.

There’s another use of the Scotch side of this in the great mortar and pestle of language known as Shakespeare: In Macbeth there is the line, “We have Scotched the snake, not killed it,” meaning that the snake is scratched, or injured. So, speculates Paul Keenan in London in a forum online, the original expression “Scotch Free” meant uninjured or even unmarked and very quickly became Scot-Free because of colloquial speech. But his dates are off considering we already had scot free in use much sooner above. Sometimes, there really are facts.


SportsGuy789, CC BY-SA 4.0

I can’t talk about consequences, or their lack, without visiting this weirdly named town in New Mexico, population 6,052 as of the 2020 census. How does a town come to be named Truth or Consequences (T or C to the locals)? Well after a popular radio show obviously. In an area known for its hot springs along the Rio Grande River, the town, which started to be settled following the construction of the Elephant Butte Dam and its reservoir in 1912, was first incorporated in 1916 as Hot Springs. Says Wikipedia:

The city changed its name from Hot Springs to Truth or Consequences as the result of a radio show contest. In March 1950, Ralph Edwards, the host of the NBC Radio quiz show Truth or Consequences, announced that he would air the program on its 10th anniversary from the first town that renamed itself after the show; Hot Springs officially changed its name on March 31, 1950, and the program was broadcast from there the following evening. Edwards visited the town during the first weekend of May for the next 50 years. This event became known as Fiesta and eventually included a beauty contest, a parade, and a stage show. The city still celebrates Fiesta each year during the first weekend of May. The parade generally features local dignitaries, last year’s Miss Fiesta pageant queen, and the winner of Hatch Chile Queen pageant. Fiesta also features a dance in Ralph Edwards Park.

The game show started on radio and ended up on TV all the way from 1940-1988. Ralph Edwards said he got the idea for the show from a popular childhood parlor game, Forfeits. He hosted both the radio show (from 1940-1957) and its launch on television (1950-1954). Edwards continued to hold the rights to the show under his production company, while later hosts included Bob Barker we know from “The Price is Right.”

On the show, contestants received roughly two seconds to answer a trivia question correctly (usually an off-the-wall question that no one would be able to answer correctly, or a bad joke) before “Beulah the Buzzer” sounded. On the rare occasions that a contestant did answer correctly, the host would reveal that the question had multiple parts. Failing to complete this “truth” portion meant that the contestant had to face “consequences,” typically by performing a zany and embarrassing stunt. Contestants’ involvement in these stunts and the audience’s reaction led Edwards to state about himself and his producers, “Aren’t we devils?” From the start, most contestants preferred to answer the question wrong to perform the stunt. Edwards said, “Most of the American people are darned good sports.”

Or showboating hams who want to win a freezer full of veggies.

You can listen to one original radio show here, in an episode where you might win a ridiculously “giant jackpot of prizes” including everything from Venetian blinds to a full year of women’s wear, Birdseye frozen foods, and much, much more if you identify a Walking Man riddle; or below, featuring a contestant who loses the question (“why is a mosquito like a small child? when it stops making a noise you know it’s getting into something”) so the consequence is he’s supposed to ship to his girlfriend across the country a 50 lb. “cake” of ice for Christmas, along with music from the satirical bandleader Spike Jones, inspiration for the nickname of contemporary filmmaker Spike Jonze.

Truth or Consequences 481211, Old Time Radio, Guest, Old Time Radio, Spike Jones

First came the radio show, and then there was the neo-noir film of 1997 starring and directed by Keifer Sutherland, called Truth or Consequences, N.M., the setting for a central scene though not actually filmed there.

From IMDB: “A group of crooks, an ex con, his friend and a gun crazy gangster plan a drug heist, but not everything goes as planned,” with the marketing tagline, When you’re running on fear, don’t stop for gas. And as far as reviews and box office, not so much, according to Magill’s Cinema Annual: “Poisoned by negative reviews, the film did not go into wide release and died aborning at the box office,” adding that “the film was more about consequences than truth, the consequences of idiots on a spree, and the consequences of both characters and filmmakers making bad choices.”

Bad choices indeed. And the neat phrase “died aborning.”

Summer plans? Perhaps to fit the theme I can spend it reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and take the kiddos on a desert trek to T or C.

Krista Mad­sen is the au­thor be­hind word­smith­ery shop,  Sleepy Hol­low, inK., and pro­ducer of the Home|body newslet­ter, which she is sharing reg­u­larly with The Hudson Independent readership. You can subscribe for free to see all her posts and re­ceive them di­rectly in your in­box.

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