'Cynics might call the perp walk the crime reporter’s red carpet': How we justify images of accused IMF chief in handcuffs

Some Europeans are upset over how American journalists have used "perp walk" photos and videos of International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who is accused of attempting to rape a hotel maid in New York City last weekend.

Former French Minister of Justice Elisabeth Guigou helped push through legislation that prohibits publication of handcuffed suspects, like Strauss-Kahn, unless they are convicted. Guigou objected to the perp walk photo on French radio, saying "I found that image to be incredibly brutal, violent and cruel."

And France's "broadcasting watchdog" has reminded media there that it remains illegal to show these images. Still, seven of the country's eight national daily newspapers showed photos of Strauss-Kahn in the courtroom, where cameras are banned in France.

Strauss-Kahn's legal team objected, according to The Wall Street Journal:

"We've been watching Strauss-Kahn on prime-time TV shows and on the front page of all newspapers handcuffed, being forcibly pushed into a car by policemen, and this is contrary to the spirit of the law," said Dominique de Leusse, a lawyer for Mr. Strauss-Kahn. "Even if the handcuffs weren't apparent, it was obvious that he was being coerced."

In the United States, the images are viewed differently, though.

"Cynics might call the perp walk the crime reporter's red carpet," says Art Harris, an award-winning investigative reporter who has covered dozens of celebrity scandals and criminal trials for CNN, People Magazine, CBS, ABC, FOX and the Washington Post over the last 30 years.

International Monetary Fund leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn is escorted away from the special victims unit precinct, Sunday, May 15, 2011 in New York. Strauss-Kahn is accused of sexually assaulting a maid in his hotel room in New York City. (Julio Cortez/AP)

"Police and prosecutors get to show off their trophy. Reporters lap it up because that's all we know we're going to get. After all, what better visual than an unshaven, shackled perp, sullen and shuffling?" Harris tells me.

"No one except defense lawyers on Nancy Grace, the ACLU or pointy-headed ethics profs even dare ask such questions. But, you're right. They should be asked."

WISN News Director Lori Waldon told me, "Perp walks are often the very first 'money shots' of a high-profile crime case. Those first images are important when the story breaks. But we also know that the perp walk often looks and feels like a circus. Unfortunately, those images often portray journalists at their worst."

"Those 30 seconds of a perp walk are the lifeblood to the TV news," Harris confirms. "Between that and the mug shot that is often all you got as visuals to tell a crime story. If you are writing for print you would not even mention that Joe Blow walked 50 steps between the police and the courthouse handcuffed face-down, unless it was some really high sensational story and you needed that tiny bit of description for color."

Waldon says one of her biggest concerns about perp walks is that they are used over and over.

"The first couple of times are okay. After that, those pictures not only become wallpaper, they lose their effectiveness. Those images become caricatures," Waldon says.

"The challenge is when we don't have many 'cover shots' for a story, so the reporter and/or editor revert back to the same worn pictures. But that still doesn't excuse using those same shots over and over. I would ask my reporters and photographers to find a more creative way to tell the story."

Looks can be deceiving or revealing

There are a few other problems with perp walk video, according to Canadian lawyer and teacher Lisa Taylor.

First, it gets used in slow motion. And "everyone looks guilty when they are slo-mo'ed," Taylor says.

The images can also damage a person's reputation and his or her ability to get a fair trial.

"If I was arrested, I would be disheveled, distressed, probably not have my makeup on. When you are held in jail it is not a night at the Ritz. It is hard not to look exhausted/creepy/guilty when you just spent a night in jail," says Taylor.

WFOR investigative reporter Stephen Stock agrees.

"I have witnessed many, many 'perp walks' and rarely is the person under arrest at their best," Stock says. "I think you could make the argument that showing this 'walk' in such circumstances is exploitative and may even be viewed by some as 'knocking someone down a peg' especially if the person under arrest is of one who has a high profile in the community."

But, Stock says, sometimes that unkempt appearance is part of the story. Think of how Saddam Hussein looked when soldiers plucked him from the underground box in which he was hiding.

"To show them 'at their best' would misrepresent to the public what is going on," Stock says. "In the case of the Strauss-Kahn arrest, the reports show he was on an airplane, 10 minutes from leaving the country when he was arrested. To NOT show his state of being after being arrested or to use merely file tape where he looked 'his best' would be misrepresentative and abdicating our role as truth-tellers for our viewers/readers. I would argue it is NOT the journalist's job to 'pretty someone up' or NOT show someone because he/she does not look their best."

Journalists should seek out other images to use in addition to the perp walk "to add fairness and balance," Stock says.

Actions speak as loud as words

WISN's Waldon says sometimes the way a person acts when paraded in front of cameras can be telling.

"Most of these people arrested for high-profile crimes have been secretive. When they're caught, there's something telling about how they look and how they react in the spotlight," Waldon says.

"A good reporter can literally detach themselves from the spectacle and provide smart, insightful observations, " Walden said. "I cringe when I hear some reporter yell to a murder suspect something like, 'Did you kill your wife?' It's those silly questions that elevate a perp walk to a circus. That's the stuff of a 'Saturday Night Live' skit.  I think any question that's insulting, presumptuous or bullying is totally off limits."

Harris says he has almost never shouted and finds it ineffective, as well. "Usually you get no response. The journalists who shouts probably knows they are not going to get an answer but the reporter gets the voice on tape and his boss says, 'Hey, hey he is out there doing his job.' It is usually purely provocative and just for Hollywood sake."

Law enforcement, media need each other

In the U.S., police and media often have a sort of "silent collaboration" in criminal cases, Harris says, where cops need the public's support to solve a case or urge witnesses to come forward and journalists need pictures and information to tell stories.

"The perp walk is an equalizer, giving voice and power to a hotel maid to accuse and confront a powerful man," Harris says. "It might give other victims (if there are any) courage to come forward if they see her being taken seriously."

Harris doesn't worry much about pre-trial publicity corrupting fair trials.

"This is not Napoleonic justice where the judge is the fact finder, prosecutor and jury. Here the people will decide ultimately. And no matter who you are, if you have been arrested for something, it is understood you are going to be subject to all the scrutiny the press is going to give you," Harris says.

Legal precedent

Over the years, U.S. courts have been sensitive to pre-trial publicity, but reluctant to forbid journalists from capturing or using images of the accused. 

The Nevada Law Journal explains, "The perp walk has two potential effects: shaming the accused and generating publicity for law enforcement. The perp walk has been criticized,  but constitutional challenges to perp walks have met with very limited success."

The American Bar Association's Rules of Professional Conduct includes two sections that speak to the legality and ethics of perp walks. Section 3.6 lays out what prosecutors may say about a case. Generally it allows prosecutors to name a suspect and say things that are already in the public record. ABA rule 3.8 does not prohibit perp walks but advises:

"Except for statements that are necessary to inform the public of the nature and extent of the prosecutor's action and that serve a legitimate law enforcement purpose, refrain from making extrajudicial comments that have a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused...."

Taylor explains how it's handled in Canada. "We don't have any laws that prohibit [us] from showing stills or video going in and out of jail or court, what we don't have is the deliberate or circus atmosphere that so often surrounds high-profile arrests in the States."

Taylor says, "While we can still use the pictures we get from a perp walk, it is usually because it is just the way they get a person from Point A to Point B, not a deliberate attempt by police to shame the person. If they did it to shame somebody, it could be a legal claim for abuse of legal process in Canada."

Journalists should consider the journalistic purpose of using the perp walk images, says Taylor.

"Does the perp walk image show something newsworthy, such as how much security is around the suspect? If Strauss-Kahn was surrounded by 20 special agents, for example, the video might say something about the importance of the case. What if the image shows the person in handcuffs being pushed around or abused? There might be a good reason to use the video."

Taylor disagrees with those, especially Europeans, who think it should be illegal to show suspects in handcuffs.

"People who have been treated unfairly should have civil remedies, but to be that prescriptive to put a blanket on coverage, this freedom of expression proponent is nervous about a prohibition of photographing and publishing anything," she says.

The history of 'perp walks'

New York Times columnist William Safire wrote that "perp walk" became a catch-phrase in 1986. But the practice has deep roots in American justice and journalism.

Poynter Chief Librarian David Shedden dug around journalism files to find us some examples of famous/infamous perp walks.

O.J. Simpson, Ken Lay, Bernie Madoff, Timothy McVeigh, Saddam Hussein all appeared for cameras after their capture. Maybe the most noteworthy perp walk was Lee Harvey Oswald's walk to his death shown on live television.

Bank robber Willie Sutton was reported to have uttered a widely quoted line during a perp walk. It is often told that a reporter asked a cuffed Sutton why he robbed banks, to which Sutton was reported to have quipped "because that is where the money is." Sutton later denied ever having said it.

A solution

There is a way to assure that perp walk video will not come to define a suspect: Allow cameras inside the courtroom. If journalists can capture video of the accused in court, there is no need to chase him down the sidewalk. The courtroom video is likely to show the accused in a better light, the same setting in which a jury would see them.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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