September 20, 2011

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

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Sweater over the face or standing straight and tall, answering questions or offering obscenities: Perp walks elicit a something different from every suspect, but most people in the United States have been exposed to a variety of them. Every day when I flip through newspapers and magazines, I see photos of suspects in high profile cases and celebrity trainwrecks splayed across the pages, captured on their way to their days in court. A “perp walk” is the practice of publicly parading an arrested suspect, usually before an appointment in court and typically handcuffed, thereby creating a chance for the media to take photographs and videos. Perp walks are incited by prosecutors, rarely prevented by the courts, and subsequently carried out by police forces who use them to publicize trophy arrests — even contacting media outlets to inform them of the location and timing of the event.

The United States stands with few other nations in its routine and controlled use of perp walks to “show off” suspects as they attend trial proceedings. Other countries that permit them, like Canada, prevent police departments from contacting media outlets in advance; there are no such restrictions here. Countries that join the United States in institutionalizing perp walks include Japan, Thailand, and South Korea, where untried suspects have been forced to reenact crimes at the scene to the jeers of other citizens.

This is not a category that we should be a part of; use of humiliation tactics on a suspect who is already in custody is unduly severe and unnecessary. Proponents of the perp walk system argue that it makes clear to society that no one is above the law: that even white-collar criminals can be caught and subjected to the same treatment as everyone else. In essence, the practice is defended as a crime deterrent.

Perp walks today, however, don’t level the playing field or set wealthy suspects in the same category as poor ones.

Instead, they institutionalize a method by which the police can shape public bias against someone who should be presumed innocent. This taints possible jury pools and marginalizes the meaning of the judicial process; I, for one, do not want to live somewhere where institutions like the police force can use accusations to spread the presumption of guilt. I want to live somewhere where the courts, contained by juries and checks and balances, do so in a level-headed, evaluative manner.

Police forces and public prosecutors nationwide do an amazing job serving their communities and keeping them safe. One of the things we ask of the police is that they presume guilt and seek out criminals, and I feel lucky to live somewhere where the police force has great success in doing so. We ask public prosecutors to take the recommendations and arrests of the police seriously, pursuing cases in court. Of course, on the whole, police officers and district attorneys will feel that suspects are guilty; if they often did not, they would not endorse the arrests of such individuals. But this means that allowing the police to contact media outlets and pre-arrange perp walks is allowing an integral party to the judicial process with no direct opponent put forth a very clear and biased representation of the suspect. When prosecutors or a police commissioner make public comments on the case during the ongoing proceedings, defense attorneys always have the right to fire back.

But what fact-finding institution is able to contradict the viewpoint of the police? Setting up a forum for photo and video-taking is not the same as issuing a press release. A verbal statement can be assessed and publicly responded to. A series of visual representations from a perp walk today tangles police opinion and journalistic direction in a manner injudicious to the suspect. No image can reach the public as pervasively as one from a perp walk. Police should refrain from active participation in the media circus just as judges have a habit of doing, if only because they occupy a powerful and uncontestable position in American public life.

Of course, the police should still support and respect transparency. Media sources should still be free to take photos of suspects as they get in and out of cars, enter courthouses and engage in public daily life. Let the reporting and biased image painting, however, be in the hands of the media alone. Police should not have to cover suspects up, hiding them from the media and protecting wealthier, white-collar criminals. But neither should they be able to contact media in advance or choose locations whereby suspects can be paraded to a shouting, uncivil and raucous crowd of reporters. There should be no contact from the police unless it is an official, attributed statement to the general public.

Fifty reporters smashed up against a barricade looking for answers that they can’t possibly get doesn’t give the public truth: It gives them a sensational news story. Newspapers and T.V. networks have the tools to investigate and pursue suspects through their own judicial process. They will still take photos and fill in stories and publish pieces that deter would-be criminals and make clear that no one can escape the law. But let the police pursue the truth, not create an arena for judgment.

Maggie Henry is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at mhenry@cornellsun.com. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Maggie Henry