What If He's Innocent?

One cannot read the published accounts of the charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn without concluding that he is probably guilty. But what if he isn't? The coverage, the photos, the op-eds have ruined his reputation, forced him to resign his high IMF position and apparently ended his bid for the presidency of France.

No matter the ultimate outcome, his life will never be the same; the cloud will always be there. Of course, if he is found guilty there is little sympathy for him or his ruined reputation. The crime charged engenders such emotion and anger that this is probably the wrong case to make the point, but shouldn't we re-examine the practice of publicizing criminal charges and the so-called "perp walk"?

When I was a teenager, my father wrote a letter to the town's weekly newspaper criticizing it for publishing an article about a local resident who had been charged with writing a bad check in another state. The article was the talk of the town -- a small one in which news spread rapidly. I knew the children of the man accused. They were devastated and embarrassed. As it turned out, he was not the person involved but rather someone with a similar name. The charges were dropped, but the story never forgotten. People would still say "wasn't he the one involved with some check fraud?"

The perfect example is what happened to the Duke students who were charged with rape. Those charges have been totally dismissed, but those boys (now men) will always be remembered for what they were accused of. Before anyone becomes incensed, I, in no way, mean to question the integrity or the veracity of the accuser here, but rather the practice of disclosing or leaking charges, detailing evidence and parading the accused.

In view of the First Amendment, I can envision no practical or legal way of forbidding the media from publicizing such charges except self-restraint, which is hardly likely in this competitive, sensation- hungry media world. But there is no reason for this information to come from law enforcement sources. I have always been of the view that unless the announcement is to allay the public fears and assure them that some serial rapist or murderer has been arrested or there is some other legitimate purpose in disclosing the identity of the person charged, there is no reason for the prosecution to announce (or leak) charges or indictments, detail the evidence, or express its views about guilt. Such conduct poisons the jury pool, adversely affects the rights of the accused, and if innocent, forever stigmatizes the person named. Using the word "alleged" hardly takes the sting away. It merely protects against libel.

The reality is that in most instances the charges are pursued to conviction and the harm from any pre-trial publicity is deserved, but in those rare cases in which the accused is innocent or acquitted, the harm can never be undone. So prosecutors and editors before they go public with charges against someone should ask themselves: What if he is innocent?