Saturday, March 12, 2005

The alleged accused suspected suspect is in custody

I'm very glad he's in custody. But I'm not commenting on the case itself, I'm commenting on the news coverage.

Yesterday on the radio I heard the newsman refer to Brian Nichols, the guy who murdered three people at an Atlanta courthouse in front of a bunch of horrified witnesses, as the "alleged" killer. Today, watching both CNN and Fox News announce the good news that he's been captured, there it was again, "alleged" and "suspect."

If this particular set of circumstances isn't enough to allow us to refer to him as a killer and not a suspect, I don't know what would be. But language has become so neutered, and journalists so hesitant, that this sort of careful weasel language has become commonplace.

Commonplace? Yes. I checked. You can check, too, if you're interested--I won't bore you by going through the all details, but they're there. Typical was yesterday's Boston Globe article: "A huge manhunt swung into motion across the Southeast yesterday as officers searched for a rape suspect accused of overpowering a sheriff's deputy in an Atlanta courthouse and then using her gun to kill a judge, a court stenographer, and a second sheriff's deputy who had chased the alleged assailant into the street." It's true that Nichols is a rape suspect (although, somehow, I'm starting to believe the guy just might be a tad guilty of that crime, too). But he's certainly not just accused of overpowering a sheriff's deputy, nor did the second sheriff's deputy chase the alleged assailant. By that time the guy was very much an actual assailant.

The New York Times and LA Times exhibited similar back-and-forth confusion. But this is most definitely not just about the liberal press; not at all. The wording is pervasive. The NY Post's lead article today is headlined "Police capture Atlanta slayings suspect," and its first line begins, "A man accused of killing three people at a courthouse..."

Why do these writers bend over backwards to avoid stating that Nichols murdered these people, when the fact is not in dispute? Is it simply habit? Is it fear of legal proceedings against the journalist for false accusations, as I suspect? What gives?

I did some research into the subject, but all I could find online was this eminently sensible set of guidelines for radio reporters, which discourages the overuse of hedgey words such as "alleged" and suggests the use of phrases such as "witnesses say" or "police say." Sounds simple, doesn't it? This is a solution to the problem that makes sense to me, protecting both the "suspects" and protecting the journalists. These phrases are in fact used intermittently in these articles, but they don't seem to be used anywhere near as consistently as common sense and the guidelines would suggest they should be.

Another thing. All of us probably wondered, when we heard the news of the murders, why Nichols wasn't handcuffed as a security measure as he was going into the courtroom. Turns out that he was not allowed to be handcuffed in order to protect him from looking bad in front of the jurors and thus prejudicing them against him. It would appear to me that a defendant who had already been caught going into court with hidden knives, as was true of Nichols, should be considered to have waived that right. But maybe that's just me.

Well, as I said, I'm very glad he's in custody. It must have been frightening to have been anywhere near the Atlanta area yesterday.


At 2:24 PM, March 12, 2005, Blogger Rick Ballard said...

"It must have been frightening to have been anywhere near the Atlanta area yesterday."


Excellent post. You may want to spend a little time here (particularly Sections 3 & 4). It's still frightening in Atlanta (and every other metro area) today. There are more uncleared crimes in the US today (percentage wise and total) than there have been at any previous time in our history. Our legal process system assures that and the MSM plays right along. The murderer in Atlanta was on trial for rape. Take a look at reported rapes versus cleared rape cases if you ever feel like you're too relaxed. I wonder if Greta and the rest of the MSM clowns get thank you notes on behalf of all the murderers and rapists walking around free because of the public's focus on defendants "rights" rather than justice for victims?

At 6:07 PM, March 12, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

Hi Rick,

If I have misunderstood your comment please forgive me, but at least two things confuse me about what you wrote.

I took a look at the website you linked to, and it is an impressive set of data. When you talk about "cleared" offenses, I assume you are referring to a table such as this one. An offense is considered "cleared" if it results in an arrest, and "uncleared" if it does not.

First of all, there is absolutely no trend in this data. The raw numbers have increased with rising population, but the percentages are remarkably flat. In 1971 the total percentage of cleared cases was 20.9%. In 2002 it was 20.0%. In between it shimmied around a little, but basically stayed put. All the numbers are rather shockingly low, but you just can't say there are more uncleared crimes today than ever before.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the crime clearance rate has virtually nothing to do with defendant's rights. Anyone who has been arrested and stands in court, whether in shackles or holding a martini, goes in the "cleared" column. The clearance rate is about the effectiveness of police and detective work, not about what happens in courts. So even if there were a huge trend toward uncleared crimes, it wouldn't help your case.

If you're refering to some other "clearance rate," please inform me.

At 9:59 PM, March 12, 2005, Blogger Rick Ballard said...

Hi Alex,

I shouldn't have focused on clearance and you are correct about the relatively level rate over time. However, this is the table that I found interesting. It covers the time period that includes the shift of focus from justice for victims to legal process. It was the 231% increase in rapes that really caught my eye. The current trend (since implementation of three strikes) is down. A fair question is whether three strikes would have been necessary and whether the rates would have increased to the current point had justice remained the focal point.

The current process games that Greta and others love to point out may actually have diminished the deterrent aspect of the system to the point where unwarranted risks are being taken by foolish people. If it weren't for the additional victims the result would be amusing.

At 10:52 AM, March 14, 2005, Blogger jj mollo said...

"Alleged" grates, but sometimes we get it wrong no matter how cut-and-dried the case seems to be.

by way of Dreams into Lightning:


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