New London Perp Walk

Criminal defense lawyers know an elemental truth: you cannot be in two places at once. But it sometimes happens that two calendars are called at the same in different places. When that happens, you simply arrive late at one courthouse, as I did today.

When I arrived at my second destination, I saw several television trucks. I knew it was going to be a perp walk day. I hoped that the court would not allow cameras in the courtroom. It was our first court appearance in a new case. It is devastating for a client to face the world suddenly accused of a crime. No purpose is served by training a camera on the face of a person shaking as they confront a judge.

Our business in court was done quickly, and we were soon out on the street, staring down television cameras. Although I had not yet seen the arrest warrant for my client, the state police had done a press release outlining the charges. The police never put the defendant’s denial of the charges in the release. They accuse, and point an accusing finger of blame at a defendant, and then circulate the release to the press. What law enforcement purpose is served by this abuse of the presumption of innocence?

It isn’t just the police who are adept at the art of the smear. The United States Attorney’s Office has it down to an art form. I’ve had cases in which my client had been arrested, hauled into court, and we sat awaiting a copy of the "sealed indictment" to be handed over to us. Before we could leave the courthouse, and before we had a chance to read the charges, a press conference was being held in another building, where the press was assemble to learn about yet another great triumph of justice.

Cops and prosecutors sure are good at shooting fish in a barrel.

Today’s proceedings seemed to represent a new low to me, however. My client is an educator. She is accused of having had sex with a student a decade ago. Today as we stood in court, great ceremony was made of presenting her with a sealed protective order, a document that notified her that she must avoid any contact with the accuser in this case. Why the accuser is such a tender shoot, we must not even utter his name aloud; the order is sealed to protect the identity of a person the court is already referring to as a victim. Just how there can be a victim without a finding of guilt is the sort of existential question courts don’t like to consider.

No one told the folks assembled in the courtroom that there is no danger that my client will find her way to this young man. He is in prison, awaiting disposition of serious felony charges pending against him. A significant bond stands between the accuser and liberty. Something tells me my client won’t be helping him post it.

The arrest warrant reads like a lurid adolescent version of Van Halen’s "Hot for Teacher." It is riddled with assertions of fact that can easily be rebutted. It raises important questions about who is the real victim in this case and why it took ten years for these claims to surface. Why this claim by a young man claiming to be a victim only after the statute of limitations for any claims my client could have raised against him has long since come and gone? (A minor can raise a claim of sexual misconduct well into middle age; an adult accusing a child has but five years to decide whether to press a claim.) We’ll look forward to trial to address these issues.

But where does my client, who is presumed innocent, go to get her reputation and peace of mind back in the interim? The state police congratulated itself with a press release that is little more than a scandal sheet. It made sure the press got wind of the release so that cameras could whir at the courthouse.

The state police has no business issuing press releases. It is not selling justice; its mission is not supposed to be entertainment. Yet every cop and many prosecutors love a perp walk. Lights, camera, action ... and screw the presumption of innocence!

Comments: (2)

  • Trial by media
    As we all know the aim is also to poison the jury pool or potential trier of fact.
    We have the same problem in Melbourne. For our high profile clients the Govt even creates Wikipedia articles about them (see Benbrika) that are not necessarily lies but are debatable. It is infuriating and rank cheating. Enjoy your tweets by the way.
    Posted on April 19, 2011 at 3:44 pm by Bill Doogue
  • Great Post
    Wow, well said. In our neck of the woods the police chief is on camera on a nightly basis talking about this or that person's guilt or innocence. Only when one of his officers shoots someone in the community the chief takes the more measured tone about waiting to see the evidence. Way to call a spade a spade.
    Posted on April 19, 2011 at 10:39 pm by Michael McKneely

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