Time to Retire the Perp Walk
Let’s talk about a police practice known as the perp walk. It’s the walk of shame for a suspected perpetrator of a crime, usually in a case that’s top of the headlines or soon will be. As police move the handcuffed prisoner from place to place both the public and the media are allowed to be on hand to shout accusations, take photos and videos of the suspected criminal and to ask loaded questions.
Perp walks are known as the crime reporter’s red carpet because police make it so easy, alerting reporters in advance about the time and place of the event so cameras can be at the ready. It’s like a preplanned scene out of a movie complete with uniformed officers, hand and sometimes leg cuffs and a suspect that is usually trying to hide their face in some dramatic fashion.
The operative word we should all keep in mind here when we watch a perp walk is – suspect. The person on the receiving end of this humiliating walk is only suspected of committing a crime and not yet convicted of one.
I must admit when I was a young reporter I often took part in perp walk spectacles.
“Amy, did you shoot Mary Jo Buttafuoco?” I remember shouting at 17-year-old Amy Fisher, (aka the “Long Island Lolita”) as she was transported from the courthouse back to jail, charged with confronting the wife of her much older lover, Joey, and putting a bullet in her head. That video clip would be played repeatedly up until, and even long after, Fischer was convicted and went to prison for seven years.
Perp walks have been a staple in New York since, like, forever. But in the spring of 2011 Dominque Strauss-Kahn, a French politician and then director of the International Monetary Fund, was arrested in Manhattan on charges of sexual assault against a hotel maid. Police subjected him to a forced public walk and it created an international incident. The French were outraged at the indignity of police parading a mere suspect in front of cameras. The incident caused one New York politician to declare the practice unconstitutional.
“Even Mother Teresa dragged out by detectives would look guilty,” said Councilman David Greenfield. His legislation to outlaw the tradition went nowhere.
Perp walks are a staple across America. Following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing I recall the only time we got to see suspect Timothy McVeigh in action was during a quick perp walk orchestrated by law enforcement. Prosecutors were likely thrilled that the public’s only image of McVeigh was in an orange prison jumpsuit. In 2011, citizens of San Bernardino County, California were treated to a multiple-man perp walk when four political operatives, dressed in green prison garb, orange plastic slippers and wrist and ankle chains were ushered before courtroom cameras for arraignment on charges of participating in a $102 million dollar bribery scheme.
More recently in Albuquerque, TV reporters were seen in a tight scrum around an elderly handcuffed acupuncturist accused of sexually assaulting a patient. While walking next to him, nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, a reporter asked Megumi Hirayama, “Did you rape her?” As the media pressed in the police escorts made no move to protect the cuffed-behind-the-back suspect.
As I watched the video of Hirayama’s close encounter with the media, I remembered the perp walk of Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963. As police walked him through a public parking area following the assassination of President John Kennedy a man with a gun appeared. Nightclub operator Jack Ruby fatally shot Oswald on live television.
I’m sure the Hirayama video has been aired multiple times around New Mexico, perhaps cementing in viewers (and potential jurors) minds that he must have committed the crimes police and prosecutors say he did. I mean, there he was, being directly asked if he had raped a patient and –he did not answer! He must have done it! Perhaps the acupuncturist is guilty but isn’t that for a court of law to decide?
Today, older and (arguably) wiser, I’ve become uncomfortable when the media declares its First Amendment free press rights are sacrosanct while ignoring other citizen’s Constitutional protections. Equally disturbing are those ubiquitous press conferences where police or prosecutors look into the camera and declare that with their latest arrest of a suspect they have taken a dangerous criminal off the street. Can’t we wait for due process anymore?
All citizens are supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Everyone has a Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial and an Eighth Amendment right not to be subjected to the “cruel and unusual punishment” of public shaming.
It is time the entire judicial system takes the overwhelmingly negative effect of perp walks seriously. It is clear prosecutors aren’t telling police to stop the practice. It’s clear judges and lawyers believe they can weed out juror bias by asking a few upfront questions. But to truly be a system fair to all the practice of perp walks have to be discontinued, like, yesterday.