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You have the right to remain silent

Years and years ago, at a paper far, far away, a series labeled “The Killer’s Trail” presented the details of homicides committed by one of our early serial killers. The main difficulty the copy desk had with the stories was that the perpetrator had not actually been convicted of any of the homicides — in fact, had not even been charged with some of them at the time of publication.

Some of these rumblings reached the editor’s ear, and he responded to the concerns by posting a memo to the staff saying that the man named in the stories “is so deep in trouble he’ll never have time to sue us.” Would God that I had preserved a copy of that collector’s item, if only to watch a lawyer go pale and hyperventilate.

The ethics of the craft demand that you take the presumption of innocence seriously. Unless you have Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald on live television, you do not know for a fact that that person committed that criminal act. So you keep the name of the person accused of the crime separate from the account of the criminal act. That is, you write about the circumstances of the robbery or the homicide or whatever, but you introduce the name of the suspect only in the sentence that says that the suspect has been charged with the crime.

With a little practice, this can be accomplished without looking awkward, and the Constitution is respected. I realize that this can look a little fussy in an age in which you can apparently publish anything about anyone on the Internet, fact, rumor, or unfounded supposition, without fear of legal repercussions or, for that matter, shame. But the day will surely come when it will be helpful to have a few shreds of ethics to wrap around yourself.

More on the language of crime reporting:

Suspect sentences: You will often see news accounts of crimes that say something like “the suspect fled” before anyone has been identified. No, the robber fled, or the shooter fled, but you do not have a suspect until an identified person has come under suspicion.

I’m not fond of the popularity of person of interest as a euphemism for Person the Police Think Is a Suspect But Have Not Yet Identified As Such, because it paints the person as a suspect in the public mind, but I see the utility of it. At that, it’s a little more direct than the British euphemism for the same context, helping the police with their inquiries.

Murder will out: Though murder in common speech is an equivalent of killing or homicide, it also has a specific legal meaning, the intentional taking of a life. A homicide can be a murder or a manslaughter. So journalists who observe the niceties do not use the word murder until someone has been convicted of that charge.

Omit needless word: The Sun’s veteran crime reporter, Peter Hermann, wonders why people write about “convicted felons.” No one becomes a felon until being convicted of a felony.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:37 AM | | Comments (16)
        

Comments

I'm glad you mention the British euphemism here as it is the source of one of the most awkward pieces of broadcasting I have ever witnessed. In a clumsy attempt to keep within the ethics you mention above, a reporter gave roughly the following account:

"A man attacked the minister with a sword before being restrained and handed over to the police. "

PAUSE

"A 37 year-old local man is helping the police with their enquiries"

When I was studying in London in January, those were the sorts of things that made me want to toss my copy of Metro (which I read out of lack of anything else) to the other end of the Tube.

I would be interested in your comments on the proper use of "alleged" in crime reporting.

But surely, John, once a person has been arraigned they can be safely referred to as "the killer." I mean, if they're not guilty, why would they even be in the courtroom?

:-)

(I would find this slightly funnier, actually, if I hadn't words to this effect while on jury duty ...)

As I've probably mentioned before, a previous employer's reporters were in the habit of writing that suspects "had been charged FOR killing ... "

As a newcomer to the copy desk there, I suggested to a city editor that this was libelous and easily avoided with a slight change in wording.

"But it's our style," I was told (as if the reporters there followed style rules). "OK, sure, it's technically libel, but these people are too poor to sue us. So, don't change it."

The bitter old-timers on the copy desk thought my concern was charming. "Let 'em get sued -- that'll teach 'em," they said.

One quibble with Peter Hermann's comment: a person is a felon after committing a felony, just as a person is a thief after committing a theft. The conviction does not change the person's status as a felon, nor does an acquittal do anything more than indicate a lack of evidence sufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. All an acquittal does for a felon is make it impossible (under almost all circumstances) for that person to be held accountable for the felony.

That means there are really three categories of felons: the convicted kind, the acquitted kind, and the uncaught kind. These last two categories can be lumped together as the-ones-who-got-away-with-it, e.g., D.B. Cooper (or whatever the skyjacker's real name is). Cooper is/was a felon despite the lack of a conviction.

P.S. To Mike regarding the presumption of guilt after arraignment: I've heard the same from prospective jurors more times than I can count. It provides an opportunity to inform the ignorant and expose the idiots.

Be leery of crime stories quoting profilers and crime consultants. They are just trawling for their next job. Many stories during the Washington sniper situation quoted profilers who said serial killers are always white men acting alone. The sniper was neither white nor one man. Perhaps if nobody had listened to these guys the crimes would have been solved earlier.
When I lived in Maryland our local police hired a retired officer who was a consultant on satanic cult activity. Lo and behold, he found evidence of such activity (logos copied from heavy metal albums spray-painted on rocks in a park). Now he could tell his future clients that he finds evidence of cult activity everywhere he goes.

Tim, fact of the matter is if they were acquitted, they're not felons by definition. In the eyes of the law, they didn't do it. And under American law, which is based on presumption of innocence (in theory), they didn't do it until the moment a jury of one's peers finds they did.

Tyler, sorry but that is not the law nor "the fact of the matter" as you put it. The presumption of innocence is an evidentiary presumption placing the burden of proof upon the prosecution. It is not a declaration of factual innocence, even after an acquittal.

And no, even in the eyes of the law they are not considered as if "they didn't do it." Recall that OJ was sued for wrongful death in civil court and found liable, despite an acquittal in the criminal trial.

But we can still say "Murder Most Foul," and not "Alleged Murder Most Foul Unless Aquitted."

You wrote, "No one becomes a felon until being convicted of a felony." That's incorrect. A person who pleads guilty to a felony is a confessed felon but not a convicted felon. Incidentally, another word besides murder that must be used with care is confess.

Mr. Lackey: A guilty plea is as much a conviction for a felony as a jury verdict. The law does not distinguish between them.

Also, a "confessed felon" (a phrase I had not seen until I read your post, although it has a certain elegance to it and I hope to be able to put it to good use) could also include someone who is acquitted and thus barred by double jeopardy rules from being tried again, who then decides to admit having committed the crime. That may be a foolish way (or perhaps a perfectly good way?) to hold oneself up to social obloquy, but it would fit the class of confessed felons.

Of course, an acquittal does not always mean another trial is barred by double jeopardy. Look at those Los Angeles police officers back in the 90s. A state court acquitted them of excessive force, then a federal court convicted them of civil rights violations based on that same use of force. Different court systems and different criminal statutes: that's what happens in a federal system of government where there are different sovereigns over different spheres of society.

In response to Tim's response to my comment: A confessed felon and a convicted felon still seem like two different animals to me. Most readers would consider pleading guilty (and having the plea accepted) and being convicted as two very different actions. Even though false confessions are not uncommon, I can't help thinking that a person who confesses to a crime is more likely to be guilty than a person who is convicted of one.

Enough of the splitting of hairs about felons. Now to the important stuff: it's time for a new photograph avec la Chapeau du Saison.

How timely (well, sort of; a few days without internet access makes me late to the commenting party); I recently heard a strange use of alleged that made me ponder. A radio reporter referred to an "alleged assault." Huh? Surely the occurrence of assault (which in this case was publicly witnessed and put the victim in the hospital) is not at issue? I am still trying to figure out why it would be necessary to hedge about whether the assault was real or not.

The only thing I can think of MJ is that perhaps the injuries were suffered by the person who started the fight. Then the other person might not be an assailant but rather could have been acting in self defence. If so, the person in the hospital would not have been a victim of an assault.

The use of "alleged assault" when these facts are not clear is all right by me.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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