NEW YORK (Reuters) - How did the perp walk get such a bad rap?
When IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was pictured, sweaty and exhausted-looking late Sunday night outside the New York Police Department’s Special Victims Unit, some denounced the practice as downright undemocratic. Former French Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou called the pre-trial publicity “absolutely sickening.” And another former French justice minister, Robert Badinter, said the IMF chief had been subjected to “death by media.”
Compared with European countries, perp walks in the United States are harsh, said Laurie Levenson, a criminal law professor at Loyola Law School/Los Angeles. “There are many more limits in other countries,” she said. In Britain and France, suspects often are brought into court in vans with blacked out windows, making it all-but-impossible for waiting media to get a glimpse.
Yet parading suspects in front of the media has been standard operating procedure among U.S. law enforcement agents for years. Government officials as far back as FBI director Edgar Hoover in the 1920s have used perp walks to bolster public support for prosecutors. Hoover orchestrated photo opportunities for journalists to capture his arrests of mobsters Alvin Karpis and Harry Campbell.
More recently, former U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani elevated both the term — and practice — in the public eye. Giuliani, who later became mayor of New York, knew the public relations value, for prosecutors anyway, of making defendants appear in handcuffs before the media on the way to arraignment. “Rudy Giuliani made an art form out of it,” said Levenson.
Corrupt bankers, drug dealers and mob members routinely were on display during Giuliani’s tenure. He memorably directed police officers in 1987 to barge onto the trading floor of Kidder, Peabody & Co. to handcuff trader Richard Wigton and escort him through the company’s trading floor. Wigton was captured weeping by photographers on the scene.
The problem with the perp walk is that it can undermine their presumed innocence of the so-called “perp,” or perpetrator. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 2000 considered the constitutionality question. In Lauro v. Charles the court ruled that perp walks in general were legal, but both the media and the public must have access, since the public’s right to know counterbalances the defendant’s rights.
“It’s like putting someone in the stocks,” said Ernest Lidge, a professor at the University of Memphis School of Law and perp walk scholar. Lidge qualified his statement: “At least people put in stocks already had been convicted.”
Indeed, charges against Wigton, were dropped 3 1/2 months after they were made. An investigation continued for another 2 1/2 years before it was abandoned. He died in 2008 at age 77.
To get pictures of Strauss-Kahn, reporters, photographers and onlookers staked out the NYPD unit for 15 hours, waiting for an appearance by the man who, before Saturday, was considered a strong contender for the French presidency. The walk, during which Strauss-Kahn was escorted by NYPD detectives, took place prior to his arraignment the following day for the alleged sexual assault and attempted rape of a maid at the Hotel Sofitel in New York. After the pictures spread worldwide, some French politicians and others voiced outrage at the American custom.
But it is not just an American practice. In some Latin American countries, officials force suspects to confess in front of cameras. Mexican officials often show suspected drug traffickers surrounded by piles of cash, weapons and drugs.
In Thailand, people charged with a crime sometimes are forced to re-enact their supposed deeds in front of onlookers or appear with the loot that they are suspected of pinching. China historically has used public appearances of suspects as a form of deterrence. Officials there often air images of suspects and convicted criminals on television to show the country is hard on crime. But changes are afoot. China’s Ministry of Public Security said it would ban the parading of suspects through the streets after a “shame parade” of accused prostitutes sparked a backlash from women’s rights activists.
In South Korea, police and prosecutors are not shy to put high profile white collar criminals on public display and will often leak key information to the press over the course of an investigation, despite a law that says even convicted felons can sue in a criminal court if they feel their “honor” has been harmed by such disclosure.
In high-profile cases, perp walks can be a way to handle a barrage of media all clamoring to get a look at the suspect. For example, the Sheriff’s Department in Harris County, Texas, does not routinely use perp walks but will sometimes organize one in emotionally charged cases, spokeswoman Christina Garza said. “You might as well cooperate so that no one gets hurt,” Garza said.
Reporting by Leigh Jones, Erin Geiger Smith, Neil Fullick and Krista Hughes; Editing by Eileen Daspin