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Media convictions often as bad as criminal convictions: Part II

Earlier this week, we wrote that the charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn may soon be dropped. In May, Strauss-Kahn was arrested for the alleged rape of a hotel housekeeper. Now, due to inconsistencies in the housekeeper's testimony, her credibility is in question.

But even if charges are dropped against Strauss-Kahn, his public image and career may still be in ruined. This is because media attention surrounding criminal cases can effectively convict a suspect in the court of public opinion.

In the US media, it is very common to show video and pictures of a suspect's arrest. This is known as the perpetrator walk, or "perp walk" for short. In May, Strauss-Kahn was subjected to the perp walk wearing handcuffs and looking unshaven.

An image like that is not meant to be neutral. No one looks composed or dignified when being arrested, and seeing someone wearing handcuffs can subconsciously make them look guilty. The perp walk is so common in the US that many don't realize that it doesn't have to be part of the criminal justice system.

In Strauss-Kahn's home country of France, the media is prohibited from showing defendants in handcuffs until they are convicted. This is because they are presumed innocent until proven guilty. French political leaders were outraged to see Strauss-Kahn subjected to the perp walk in America.

In Britain, suspects are also rarely shown in public. They are transported in vans with blacked-out windows.

In light of the recent developments, many in the US are now calling for the end of the perp-walk tradition. A member of the American Civil Liberties Union says: "They are thinly veiled attempts to poison the atmosphere and begin the trial in the press."

The media pays a lot of attention to the front end of a criminal case. But unless the case ends in a conviction, the coverage often wanes or stops entirely. Therefore, many people remember the accusation but few remember the acquittal.

It is important to remember that suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. In order to honor that important legal protection, perhaps it is time to get rid of the perp walk.

Source: Thomson Reuters Westlaw News, "'Perp walk' facing new scrutiny after DSK case," Leigh Jones and Joan Gralla, 06 July 2011

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