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Innocent until proved guilty takes a beating

Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.

He was a nobody, if not worse. He was a nobody lowlife.

At least that’s the way it must have seemed to whoever killed John Chamberlain. In an Orange County jail on charges of possessing child pornography, Chamberlain allegedly was kicked to death this month by a group of inmates at Theo Lacy Jail who apparently thought, mistakenly, that he’d been accused of child molestation.

In many prison cultures, that accusation is enough to get the crud knocked out of you. No matter whether the charge is true or not or what the evidence might be, the high-minded inmates simply want to make a statement. For guys who often protest their own innocence, they have no qualms about dispensing their form of justice to accused molesters.

And because everybody inside and outside of jail knows that culture, you’d think the people in charge of protecting inmates -- yes, they are entitled to show up alive at their trials -- would be a bit more hip to their perils.

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There’s no greater testament to that failure than Chamberlain’s death. And even for those among us with barely measurable sympathies for inmates, can’t we agree that a still-innocent man’s death while in official custody must be accounted for?

In language even the most hard-core inmates can understand, murder is murder.

And now, as for our nobody lowlife known as Mr. Chamberlain, sentenced to death by the tribunal inside Lacy ...

Dorothy Schell is sitting in my car outside a restaurant in Laguna Hills talking about him. She’s describing someone else altogether, a John Chamberlain she met 16 or 17 years ago while both were square dancers. A John Chamberlain, 41 when he died, who had been a security guard most of his adult life but who recently finished coursework in computer technology. It was a direction that Schell had suggested to him, telling him she thought he wasn’t living up to his potential.

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The two expanded their mutual love of dancing into a relationship and had spent most of the last 14 years together, Schell says.

It was the kind of relationship that required some thought and effort, because Schell is 28 years Chamberlain’s senior. If she were a man involved with a younger woman, society would pay no nevermind. But an older woman with a much younger man brings its own set of considerations, considerations that for the most part were buried under the couple’s mutual love for dancing and traveling to places like the Bahamas and New Orleans.

“He always said he was the old soul and I was the young soul,” Schell says.

Schell describes the Chamberlain she knew as a happy-go-lucky guy who loved to entertain and emcee events. A homebody, he also liked to paint and make leather items that he sometimes would give away for free. Schell doesn’t blindly assert Chamberlain’s innocence but says she never saw any signs in the years they were together to indicate he had any interest in child pornography.

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For that reason, she isn’t convinced of his guilt. If the charges were true, she says, she believes it stemmed from some scheme to make money instead of a sexual perversion. Or, she theorizes, he may have become immersed in some online “fantasy” world and “lost touch with reality.”

She says their relationship was ending last summer and that he “just hadn’t been himself” in recent months. On the night before his arrest in July, they met at a Chinese restaurant and, in what became a tearful dinner, Chamberlain asked Schell to move to Arizona with him, she says. She told him she wanted a commitment from him about their relationship, but they left the matter unresolved that night.

The next day, Schell says, he was arrested. He wanted her to bail him out of jail, but looking at some $20,000 or more in bond money, she refused.

Among other issues she’s now grappling with, Schell says, that one haunts her. “Being that he was murdered and I didn’t bail him out, that’s heavy, heavy, heavy,” she says.

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She is angry at the county jail operation, especially because Chamberlain specifically asked for protection. Despite his security guard career, Chamberlain, at 5-4 and 155 pounds, wasn’t pugnacious, Schell says.

“He was not a fighter. He wouldn’t have intentionally offended anyone,” she says. He wouldn’t “have done well” if someone began a fight with him, she says.

In the days before his death, Chamberlain told her he was fearful. He thought a jail deputy had passed on information about his alleged crime, leading Chamberlain to believe that “something was up” in the jailhouse.

He proved prophetic.

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Schell made sure the information got to the authorities, but nothing was done.

Sheriff’s officials have said the investigation continues.

I don’t know if anyone beyond Schell and Chamberlain’s other friends care.

But let’s hope that, as a society still supposedly in touch with its humanity, we do.

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At his death, John Chamberlain was an innocent man.

“It’s a very, very deep loss,” Schell says. “Put it this way: It’s the last thing I think about before I go to sleep and the first thing I think about when I wake up.”


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