Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On the Soapbox: Naming and Defaming A"Person of Interest"

Okay, I am upset about a new criminal law issue here today! So, I am climbing back up on the soapbox again to complain about it! Today, I want to complain about the improper law enforcement habit, in recent years, of naming and defaming a "person of interest." This bad habit usually occurs in high profile criminal investigations in which the chief investigator or agent calls a press conference and names a potential suspect. The purposes of this unfair practice apparently include deflecting public pressure off the cops to catch the "bad guy," and applying public pressure on the "person of interest" in order to make them sing like a canary. In my opinion, this practice of defaming someone without proof is WRONG! In my opinion, the police should either just quietly do their jobs and develop sufficient probable cause to ARREST someone, or they should just shut up until they do so!
I don't recall exactly when this bad habit of naming a "person of interest" first began. But it is of fairly recent origin. Did it begin in 1996, for example, during the Atlanta Olympic bombing episode, when police falsely named security guard Richard Jewell, (pictured above), as a "person of interest?" You may recall that Jewell was actually a hero who found a pipe bomb and saved lives. You may also recall that being named a "person of interest" by police, who apparently hungered for headlines and an easy scapegoat, nearly ruined Jewell's life. Police and the news media hounded poor Jewell until the real Olympic bomber was caught. But they didn't learn a lesson from this sordid episode.
Now, the police are doing it again! You may have read today's news story about police naming a "person of interest" in the alleged murder of a Yale student employee. We cannot possibly know if he did it or not. But that is not the point here. The point here is that we do know that this practice of naming a suspect without charging them is unconstitutional and just plain wrong!
As a former prosecutor for over 26 years, (and currently, as a criminal defense lawyer), I am certainly no bleeding heart! And I will stack up my victims' rights advocacy credentials next to anyone's. But I can tell you that there is NO provision in the law or Constitution for naming a "person of interest." The law simply provides that if the police develop probable cause, they may arrest and charge a "defendant." Nothing more. Nothing less!
So, please just do your jobs, people, and stop naming and defaming "persons of interest!" And while you are at it, please also quit calling press conferences every five minutes about pending criminal investigations! There, I've gotten it off my chest! Now, tell us, what do you think?

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