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Separating an admirable confession from a terrible crime

Matthew Cordle does not want your admiration.

He knows some people are finding inspiration in his courage. We are told this upsets him. He thinks they're missing the point.

The point is, he killed someone.

Vincent Canzani was a 61-year-old photographer, Navy veteran and father of two daughters. In the pre-dawn hours of June 22, he was traveling on I-670 in Columbus, Ohio, when his Jeep was struck head-on by a Toyota Tundra speeding east in the westbound lanes. Mr. Canzani died at the scene.

Mr. Cordle, 22, was critically injured in the crash. As of last week, he had not been arrested. Then, without his attorney's knowledge, he recorded a video, a wrenching, professionally produced clip that makes his guilt clear as mountain air.

"I killed a man," he says. The screen is black. Somber music rises, a heavily pixilated face appears, and in an electronically altered voice, it tells the story. How he was out bar-hopping with friends. How "sometimes I drink because I have depression that I struggle with every day." How drinking made him someone "people don't like being around." How he drank to excess then got behind the wheel. How Mr. Canzani paid with his life.

"Immediately following that, I consulted some high-powered attorneys who told me stories about similar cases where the drivers got off. They were convinced that they could get my blood test thrown out and all I would have to do for that was lie. Well, I won't go down that path."

Here, he faces the camera without pixelation, speaking in his natural voice. "My name is Matthew Cordle," he says. Yes, he says, he knows this video will likely help convict him. The point is moot; he intends to plead guilty. He closes with a plea: "I beg you — and I say the word beg specifically — I'm begging you, please don't drink and drive."

Mr. Cordle's video wound up on Because I Said I Would (becauseisaidiwould.com), a website dedicated to the power of promises. He wants people to promise not to do what he did. Monday, he was arrested and indicted on charges that could put him away for up to eight-and-a-half years. And yes, that penalty would be well-deserved.

It's emblematic of our cynical times that people online have suggested the video is part of some Machiavellian plot to get a lighter sentence. It's also emblematic that you can't dismiss the speculation out of hand.

But Alex Sheen, founder of Because I Said I Would, told CNN Mr. Cordle seems sincere in his desire to accept responsibility for what he did. That opinion is persuasive. Mr. Cordle, says Mr. Sheen, is "upset that people are calling his act of confession 'courageous.'?"

You can hardly blame them, though. We see such forthright behavior so seldom. In this era, people who get in trouble parse the meaning of "is" or say "mistakes were made." They speak non-apology apologies filled with uncontrite contrition. This has become the norm.

So there is a rare, courageous integrity in seeing this very young man step up and say, I take responsibility. To acknowledge that is not to minimize the crime, nor to lionize the criminal.

He did what he did and you can never erase that or reduce it.

But there is more to the story — and to Mr. Cordle. Though we sometimes pretend you can encapsulate a given individual in a single blunt word of judgment, the truth is, humanity is more complex than that, each woman or man a vessel of traits that contradict and deny one another. It is impossible to say which one of them defines the whole person in every situation. It is also unnecessary to say. We are not limited to a single blunt word of judgment.

So we can say of Matthew Cordle, yes, we're saddened by the terrible thing he did. But we are also braced by what he did after that.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His email is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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