Investigation into Gov. Northam's yearbook photo yields no conclusive results

In early February the site Big League Politics published a page from a 1984 yearbook featuring Gov. Ralph Northam. One of the photos on Northam’s page was of a man in blackface standing next to someone dressed in a KKK outfit. The school initiated an internal investigation and hired a law firm to determine who was in the photo. They even attempted to do facial recognition. Today, after nearly four months of looking at documents and talking to witnesses, the law firm released a 55-page report. The bottom line: They can’t say for certain who is in the photo.

We found no information that the Photograph was placed in error, though we acknowledge there is scant information on this subject thirty-five years after the fact. Nor were we able to
conclusively determine the identity of either individual in the Photograph, or the origin of the Photograph. No one we interviewed told us the Governor was in the Photograph, and no one could positively state who was in the Photograph.

While the report isn’t conclusive about who is in the photo, there are suggestions in the report that it would have been unlikely to wind up there as the result of an accident. The law firm spoke to several people who worked on the 1984 yearbook, some of whom didn’t remember anything about it. But at least one person, identified as source 1984-2, did remember it clearly:

1984-2 told us that there were boxes of yearbook related materials, mostly unsealed envelopes with photographs, which were assembled by other students. 1984-2 recalled another student trying to sort out the photographs and working to resize them…

When the yearbooks returned before graduation, 1984-2 said students were not interested in it. He concluded that it was possible a photograph could have fallen from one envelope into another, but stated the likelihood of something getting misplaced was not high, but also not impossible.

Another source, 1984-3, helped lay out the personal pages and said he wasn’t aware of any pranks or swapped photos in the yearbook:

A third member of the 1984 yearbook staff, 1984-3, told us he was responsible for preparing personal page layouts and group photographs. 1984-3 was unaware of any pranks or mistakes on personal pages, but did tell us that one aspect of the layout was changed without his knowledge. 1984-3 pointed to the final page of the yearbook; when 1984-3 finished the layout on this page, it contained only a photograph of a man in silhouette. When 1984-3 received the yearbook after it was published, there was a picture of a woman’s face and a poem.

That source believes the yearbook’s editor may have made the change. However, the law firm was not able to reach or interview the yearbook editor so it remains unclear.

Governor Northam initially apologized for the photo and then, a day later, claimed he had never seen it before and believed he was not pictured in the photo at all. The law firm spoke to Northam and to several people he knew at the time who did not believe the photo was of him for various reasons:

The former VMI roommate, who is now a practicing dentist, told him it was not Governor Northam for several reasons. First, he told Governor Northam his teeth had never looked as good as the individual in blackface, and he did not think Governor Northam wore bowties or plaid pants. The former VMI roommate also noted that the person in blackface held beer in his right hand, whereas Governor Northam usually uses his left hand…

Governor Northam also believes he is not in the Photograph based on the size of the individuals in the Photograph. He noted the person in blackface had much larger legs than he did
in medical school, and the person in the KKK robes is much shorter than he is. Governor Northam commented that he would remember standing next to someone dressed in KKK robes. Further, Governor Northam stated that he “remembered like it was yesterday” dressing up as Michael Jackson. Throughout our interview, Governor Northam stated he was “positive” it was not him in the Photograph.

No one could or would identify the people in the photo but several people suggested the person in the Klan hood may have been a woman. As for the reasons the other person (in blackface) can’t be Northam, they seem thin. He usually held a beer in his other hand? I mean, most people can hold a beer in either hand. He didn’t normally wear bow ties? Well, this was obviously a costume, not something the person normally wore. He could have borrowed the items. His teeth do look bright but the quality of the photo is poor. That could also be the result of contrast created by the blackface. None of it seems conclusive.

The law firm also spoke to members of the Governor’s staff about the day when the photo became news. They all remember him saying that he didn’t believe the photo was of him. He also claimed he’d never seen the photo before (because he hadn’t bought the yearbook). However, the law firm did speak to one person who undercut Northam’s claim about never having seen the photo. This person was verified to have attended the school and recalls reviewing the yearbook with Northam, including his personal page, shortly before graduation:

We also interviewed an alumnus who attended EVMS in the same timeframe as Governor Northam. This individual recalled talking to Governor Northam outside of the EVMS library in the weeks before the class of 1984 graduated. This alumni told us he and Governor Northam flipped through the 1984 yearbook together and that included looking together at Governor Northam’s personal page. This individual did not recall the Governor having any reaction to the photographs on his personal page that would suggest the Governor thought there was an error on his page. He did remember discussing the photograph featuring the car on Governor Northam’s page. This former student told us that he did not believe Governor Northam was in the Photograph…

We are not aware of any motive this individual would have to fabricate this account. As with all witness accounts related to the 1984 yearbook, there is the element of the passage of time and that any person’s recollection may dim after thirtyfive years. With that said, this individual did not report any difficulty of memory. We note that this account, if accurate, is apparently inconsistent with the Governor’s statement that the first time he reviewed the Photograph was on February 1, 2019.

Northam was asked about this recollection in a follow-up interview and said he didn’t recall the student making the claim or recall reviewing the yearbook with him. Obviously, if this person was lying, they would probably be doing so to make things worse for Northam. But the guy making the claim doesn’t believe Northam was in the photo. So there’s no real motive to lie about Northam having seen it.

This seems like a fairly significant blow to Northam’s credibility because if he did see the photo at the time and wasn’t surprised, then it seems very likely he submitted it himself. And that would undercut all of his claims about the photo. Will the media follow up and try to identify the person making this claim? It would be interesting to see this person interviewed to get a sense of how credible they seem. This is the best evidence in the report that Northam could be lying (or if you’re feeling really generous, wrong).

There’s one final interesting tidbit in the report. Two successive presidents of the school knew about the photo before it became news in February. An alumni affairs director had discovered it after various yearbooks were left out on a table during an event. The director removed it from the table so no one else would see it. Two presidents of the school were notified about it at times when Northam was in the news for various campaigns. They both decided not to alert him or the media to the picture because they didn’t want to become part of a public firestorm.