'Perp' walk: Unfair to defendants?

For defendants in high-profile criminal hearings, the so-called "perp walk" is one of the more distasteful traditions of American jurisprudence. The news media are alerted to a time and location when the alleged perpetrator will be walked to the courthouse so they can photograph him or her en masse — often in handcuffs and surrounded by police.

Defense attorneys don't care for this parade and have argued against it on the grounds not just of public humiliation but of fairness. They believe the image of their client, particularly in handcuffs and besieged by the media, serves only to prejudice the public — and potential jurors — before a case is even made inside the courtroom.

The latest poster child for this is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, who was arrested in May and charged with sexually assaulting a hotel maid in a case that has since begun to look doubtful, as the victim's credibility has become tarnished. In the accused's native France — where press freedoms are strictly limited when it comes to talking about criminal defendants — the outcry sent commentators into high dudgeon, with some calling it cruel and a form of torture.

Even New Yorkers — a group not normally known for great empathy for those standing in the dock — have jumped into the fray. Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently called it "outrageous" and noted that people who have not yet been found guilty are vilified "for the benefit of theater, for the circus." That was a sharp contrast with his spirited defense of the practice at the time of Mr. Strauss-Kahn's arrest, when the mayor suggested that "if you don't want to do the perp walk, don't do the crime."

Still, there is talk of banning perp walks, and not just in the Big Apple. Proponents point to the precedent of laws and court decisions in Maryland and elsewhere that insist that defendants not appear in court in shackles (unless, of course, such extreme security measures are justified).

But what, exactly, would banning perp walks accomplish? In many jurisdictions, this cooperation between the media and authorities is simply made to prevent hordes of photographers from hanging out at all hours around courthouse entrances or jailhouse exits, waiting for the opportunity to get their footage or still picture. Without that cooperation, the press would simply revert to form, the stakes made all that much higher.

Authorities still have to transfer defendants to the courtroom, after all, and in this age of cameras in every cell phone, a photograph is inevitable. Even those on trial not being held in a jail or prison still have to enter the courthouse at some point.

To our knowledge, no defendant has ever been convicted of a crime based on his or her appearance in a perp walk. Yet to bar such photography would only serve to make the judicial system that much more secretive and outside the public view.

The U.S. system of justice is rooted in transparency and accountability. In most legal proceedings, the records are open to inspection, outsiders are welcome to attend, the parties are identified by name, and so on. Bad enough that cameras are banned from many courtrooms — including those in Maryland — on the grounds that their presence might harm security or decorum or somehow negatively affect the outcome.

But at least a ban on photography inside in the courtroom is within reason. Banning perp walks amounts to banning photographs of defendants outside the courtroom and elevating a defendant's right to avoid embarrassment against the public's very tangible right to know what's going on in criminal proceedings.

Some may see a handcuffed head of the IMF and assume he must be guilty. But others may see that no one is held above the law in this country, and all are treated the same. That important message will be lost if no one ever gets to see the accused walk the walk.

We won't pretend that perp walks show the news media at its best, as scrums of camera operators jostle and elbow to get the desired image of the unhappy defendant. But setting further limits on public access to criminal proceedings has consequences that would seem worse — a loss of confidence in a system of justice that keeps everyone, even those accused of the most dastardly crimes, out of view and public scrutiny.

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