How Fair Is The "Perp Walk"?

July 11, 2011

How Fair Is The “Perp Walk”?
Remember those guilty as hell Duke lacrosse players…who actually ended up not being guilty…after being practically burned at the cross by everyone from higher-ups at their university to the international press?

There’s supposed to be trial by jury in this country, but it’s gotten to the point where there’s a trial by press first when police parade some person accused of a crime before the cameras.

Andrew Cohen, writing in The Atlantic, feels the French were right to deem this an abuse of justice, vis a vis the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case. Cohen writes:

Of all the discordant notes that have been sounded since the arrest last week of former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the most disappointing may have come from Michael Bloomberg. Of the now famous “perp walk” of the world’s most famous rape suspect, the mayor of New York City said: “I think it is humiliating, but you know if you don’t want to do the perp walk, don’t do the crime.” Then, perhaps sensing that he had gone too far in prematurely adjudging Strauss-Kahn guilty, the mayor added: “The real sad thing is if someone is accused and does the perp walk and turns out not to be guilty, then society really ought to look in the mirror.”

Cohen calls the perp walk “the result of one of the most cynical conspiracies in all of modern-day criminal justice”:

It is an officially-sanctioned and eternally re-enacted plot between the media and the police, the overt act of which benefits both parties — and prosecutors as well — at the expense of the suspect. It is done so flawlessly and routinely now that hardly anyone in America even realizes anymore how prejudicial and unfair it is to a defendant. We simply take it for granted today that the public image of a presumedly innocent person can lawfully be manipulated by the government and its agents. That’s why so many of us were so surprised when the French expressed outrage over the way Strauss-Kahn was treated after his arrest. Sometimes, it takes an outsider to see clearly the truth.

The police naturally have an interest in publicly displaying their fruits of their labor — a suspect who looks guilty, as we all would if marched about in handcuffs after sleepless hours in detention — and the media naturally have an interest in publishing the images they receive from the walks. (If I had a dollar for every time a perp walk was broadcast on television B-roll over the past 15 years I can tell you flatly that I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this column). At fault are both the law enforcement officials who arrange to “walk the perp” at a specific time and place — there is a reason the cameras are almost always there, folks — and the reporters and producers who endlessly replay the images and take convenient cover under the First Amendment’s free press rights. They use the First Amendment as a putative shield, even as they use the images themselves as a sword that cuts deeply into the Sixth Amendment fair trial rights of the accused.

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