Should ‘perp walks’ be abolished?

Recently, international furor over the treatment of ex IMF leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn forced prosecutors and the American criminal justice system to experience a rare moment of introspection. The outrage has had to do with so-called “perp walks.”

Perp walks have long been used by police and prosecutors as a tool to shame a person who is facing criminal charges. These staged media events involve a suspect being paraded, often in an orange jumpsuit and in handcuffs, at a prescheduled time in front of throngs of members of the media.

Critics of the practice justifiably point out that these staged media events are little more than an attempt to stigmatize the defendant in public eye. In addition, seeing a defendant dressed in prison clothes and in handcuffs can cause members of the public, many of them who are potential jurors, to form a judgment about the defendant’s guilt or innocence.

In our system of justice, a person is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The presumption of innocence makes the perp walk virtually non-existent in other countries. In Strauss-Kahn’s native France, the media is not even allowed to show a defendant in handcuffs until the defendant is convicted. In the United Kingdom, suspects are hidden from public view and transported in vans with heavily tinted windows.

When Dominique Strauss-Kahn was dragged before the media unshaven and in handcuffs, it created quite a stir, and it angered his supporters. Now that the case against Strauss-Kahn is crumbling, critics of the practice of perp walks justifiably point out that perp walks can unfairly harm an innocent defendant’s reputation.

Although some prosecutors say perp walks can help other witnesses to a crime come forward after they recognize the defendant, others point out that there is no legitimate purpose for perp walks and the practice should be abolished.

Source: Thomson Reuters News and Insight, “‘Perp walk’ facing new scrutiny after DSK case,” Leigh Jones and Joan Gralla, 7/6/2011