Perp walks change perception

By Danza Johnson/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – When Tupelo’s Michael Carr saw Steven Metcalf stroll across the television screen in handcuffs and shackles after being charged with possession of child pornography, he said authorities should lock up Metcalf and throw away the key.
Despite Metcalf only was having his charges officially read to him and bond set that September day, thanks to television cameras, Metcalf was already guilty in Carr’s mind.
And this is the problem many people have with “perp walks.”
Perp walks, as police call them, are when a crime suspect is walked into Justice Court to have bond set. Usually the arresting agency alerts the media when a perp walk is happening.
In Lee County, suspects like Metcalf can be seen on television frequently in jail garb, escorted by armed officers walking into the courthouse. Some say “innocent until proven guilty” is a notion that is thrown out of the window when perp walks are involved. But law enforcement officials who use the perp walk say it’s just a way to let the public know they are doing their jobs.
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson uses the perp walk frequently. Johnson says the First Amendment gives the press the right to be involved in such events and with police organizing them, they at least have some control over what gets released.
“A lot of our crimes are reported by the public, so it’s obvious they care about what is going on in their communities,” said Johnson. “So when we make an arrest that we feel is significant, I feel that the public has a right to know that their complaints have been addressed. The public deserves the right to know what their sheriff’s department is doing.”
University of Mississippi Law School professor Michael Hoffheimer worries about how perp walks can affect a suspect’s presumption of guilt.
“I am concerned that so-called perp walks can stir up public hatred for a suspect that has not yet been proved to be a perpetrator or criminal,” said Hoffheimer. “This makes it harder to protect an innocent person’s constitutional right to be convicted only by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. I am also concerned that the public display of people who have not yet been convicted may cause them humiliation and embarrassment.”
Hoffheimer said parading suspects who have not been found guilty of a crime in front of news cameras may permanently harm their reputation or business.
“Such penalties may be appropriate after someone is convicted of a crime,” Hoffheimer said. “But we should be careful about inflicting punishments before conviction. And we should all be concerned about doing anything that increases the risk of convicting innocent people.”
The perp walk received international attention during the past few months in connection with the arrest of former International Money Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was accused of sexually assaulting a hotel maid in New York. Charges were later dismissed against Strauss-Kahn, but damage was already done with media displays of his perp walk.
Johnson said a perp walk does not convict anyone, it simply lets the public know someone has been arrested.
“Our system is innocent until proven guilty, not guilty until seen in a perp walk,” said Johnson. “We can’t stop the media from attending. We never say anyone is guilty during a perp walk.”
But a general viewer like Carr says seeing a person in shackles, handcuffed and getting out of a police car to be walked into a courthouse spells guilt to him.
“When I watch the news and see the people being escorted by police to the courthouse, I think they are guilty,” said Carr. “I may be wrong, but they look guilty.
I guess when you see that you forget to separate what’s actually going on to the crime they were accused of. You forget it’s just a part of the process.”
Even though she said she knows an arrest doesn’t make a person guilty, Susan Gilmore of Tupelo said she can see how that correlation between a perp walk and guilty can be drawn.
“I feel sorry for people who have to go through that type of humiliation if it comes out that they were innocent,” said Gilmore. “Innocent people do get charged in our legal system.”
danza.johnson@journalinc.com