Tuesday 21 December 2010

Should people charged with sex offences be named in the media?

I can’t imagine a more horrible experience in life than being publicly named in the news media as a person charged with a sex crime. This would be even more horrible if that person was actually innocent of the crime. Unfortunately, some of these persons commit suicide before their trials commence. They simply can’t live with the shame that is thrust into their lives.

Detention administrators have a legal, moral, and ethical responsibility to protect detainees from self-harm. Suicide in custody was rare, and until recently it was the leading cause of death in count jails and municipal police lockups. Most jail suicides are perpetrated by hanging (self-asphyxiation)

The elevated risk of suicide among detainees is significantly higher than the risk in the general population. Heightened risk stems from a variety of dispositional and situational factors. With respect to the former, jail detainees have disproportionately high rates of psychiatric, substance use, and personality disorders as well as unemployment, weak social ties, and homelessness—all of which increase the risk for suicide. In addition, the majority of detainees are men, who are significantly more likely to commit suicide than women.

In this article, I am going to deal with pretrial suicides rather than suicides by prisoners who have already been sentenced. The suicides I am going to deal with are those committed by pre-trial detainees and others who have been released pending their trials and who have been charged with child poronography and/or sexual molestation of children.

Now before you say to yourself, ‘Who gives a shit?’ keep in mind that just because a person is charged with an offence, it doesn’t necessarily mean that person is guilty of the offence.

As a group, defendants charged with sexual exploitation charges are typically released at the pretrial stage at a higher rate than defendants with other types of pending charges. In 2006, for example, 53 percent of sex crime defendants were released prior to trial, primarily because they are assessed and classified—correctly, it turns out—to be at low risk for absconding or committing a new offense while on pretrial release.

While these defendants are certainly at low risk for new offenses or absconding prior to trial, pretrial release in some cases may actually increase their risk of suicide. That is because there is no one to supervise them 24 hours a day like there is in in jails. On the one hand, their risk of suicide might be lower than that of people in confinement. That is because they might have less serious criminal histories and greater levels of financial resources and family support than those in custody.

Defendants charged with child exploitation offenses, such as child pornography, sex transportation, and sex abuse, are a small but fast-growing segment of the federal criminal caseload in this country.

Today’s child sex exploitation defendant population, which consists mostly of child pornography cases, might be characterized by a much different—and potentially higher—suicide risk profile than that of an earlier generation of such defendants, which consisted mostly of sex abuse who (while incarcerated) were generally at lower risk for suicide.

Child pornography defendants are overwhelmingly white and around 90% are middle-aged. Many of them are white collar employees and some hold high positions in businesses and government.

Here are several cases that points out the risks of naming suspects after they have been arrested with child pornography.

The first case is about a grandfather in the U.K. who gassed himself just hours after child porn police raided his home - even though he was innocent. His widow launched a bitter attack on the police after hearing at an inquest how detectives who seized his computers found nothing illegal. Michael Curtis's home was raided and three laptop computers seized after intelligence led officers to his address after he stumbled upon one indecent picture and viewed it for a matter of seconds.

The inquest into his death heard that the 50-year-old amateur photographer gassed himself with fumes from his car just hours after police had executed a warrant at his home.Coroner Nicholas Gardiner was told Thames Valley Police would not have brought any charges against Mr Curtis after finding no evidence on his laptops.

The investigation on July 28th 2009 was conducted by Interpol intelligence from Luxembourg after Mr Curtis innocently viewed the picture in March, 2009. His widow Ruth had told the inquest in Oxford: 'It doesn't matter what you write on the death certificate, I know you're going to write down he took his own life but he didn't. His life was taken that morning when those police officers arrived at the house.'

The inquest was told that four officers turned up to Mr Curtis's house in Banbury, Oxfordshire, at 9am with a warrant under the Child Exploitation and Welfare Protection Act to seize his computers. Detective Sergeant Howard Berry later told the coroner: 'There was no evidence but there was intelligence. Police in Luxembourg traced access to the website to the address. 'A picture had been viewed which was of an illegal nature. Intelligence came to police through international channels. Then there was a decision to investigate further and the warrant was issued.'

'The police when they turned up to the house treated him like he was guilty and treated him exactly like they would a convicted pedophile. His wife said at the inquest, “I don't understand how accidentally looking at one single picture for a matter of seconds in March 2009 has filtered down into an investigation in July 2010. They must have known he didn't look at any other pictures or visited any other website afterwards. Surely they can come to the conclusion he stumbled upon it? 'He would have been totally shocked by these claims. He would have been thinking about what people would think and what would he tell the people he worked for. I want people to know he is innocent and did not do anything wrong.”

An hour after police had left the house, Mr Curtis drove to a DIY store and bought piping and wiring before returning home and locking himself in the garage, the inquest heard.Mrs Curtis discovered his body slumped in the driver's seat of his car after she had returned home from work. He had left a note on the passenger seat which read: 'Hi Ruth, sorry, time to go. Of course I love you, Simon, Paul, Jenny, Cerys and Owen. The police have taken the computers.'

Coroner Nicholas Gardiner, recording a verdict of suicide, said: 'Whether or not the warrant was rightly issued is to be taken up elsewhere. Clearly it impacted on Mr Curtis and he had obviously spent time thinking about it and decided to take his own life, and that is how I have to record his death.'

Obviously, his suicide was premature but when he decided to kill himself, he believed that he would be charged because of the manner in which the police treated him when they were in his home.

The second case is about a former Mobile, Alabama police officer, Fredrick Renfroe, 44 who was due in federal court to face accusations of child pornography, shot himself in the head on the evening of January 23rd 2007, at his home while federal agents were there to arrest him. He was taken to the University of South Alabama Medical Center with a single gunshot wound. He was in critical when he arrived at the hospital

The third case is about a former York schoolboy and university graduate who committed suicide in December 2010 after being accused of involvement in an international child pornography ring. Richard Dyde, 47, died a day after being released on bail in Canada. He had been facing charges of making, possessing, and making available child pornography.

He was one of 57 men worldwide arrested as part of Project Sanctuary, a year-long investigation into a global child pornography network. Toronto Police Service said 25 children had been rescued across the world as a result of Project Sanctuary – three in Europe, ten in the USA and 12 in Canada. Of the 57 men arrested, six are in Europe. A spokesman said undercover officers had spent a year infiltrating a worldwide network of men who were allegedly trading child sexual abuse images and videos and, in some cases, creating such images by allegedly abusing children.

Police allege Dyde and the other accused were involved in on-line trading of child sexual abuse images and videos. The investigation, dubbed Project Sanctuary, involved police from Canada, the U.S. and Europe. A total of 25 children were removed from abusive relationships.There is no suggestion Dyde had direct contact with a child victim.

Dyde had achieved much in his 47 years. He’d earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience in the U.K., where he had grew up. In 2001, he’d moved to Toronto to join York University’s Centre for Vision Research. According to his entry on the Friends Reunited website, Mr Dyde went to Carr County Junior School before going on to Nunthorpe. He later studied for a degree in psychology at the University of York in the 1990s before emigrating to Canada, where he worked at Toronto’s York University, and is said to have held a PhD in cognitive neuroscience. He also authored a book about George Cayley, the Victorian aeronautical engineer known as the father of aviation.

Mr Dyde served at one time in the RAF and came from a family of aviators, with his brother and father also serving in the air force. Mr Dyde is reported to have been conducting research in Canada as part of a team designing experiments to explore the impact of zero gravity on astronauts in space.

A colleague in Canada is reported to have said Mr Dyde could not live with the news of his charges being made public, which would probably have been too much for him to bear. Shamed and humiliated, Dyde chose to do what a growing number of others who face child exploitation charges — considered among the most repugnant of crimes — have done.

He was released on bail and waiting for him outside court was the media. His name, face and biographical details made the evening news, the Internet and the morning papers. How did the reporters know he was going to be on the steps of the court house? The police informed them.

The morning after he’d been publicly identified as one of 57 men charged in an international child exploitation investigation, Richard Dyde waited for his wife to leave the house. The York University scientist and author then left his Leaside home on a bicycle on the morning of December 9th. It was cold and clear. He pedalled the short distance to the Woodbine Bridge on O’Connor Drive. Dyde parked his bike and climbed the railing on the Woodbine Bridge and jumped. He landed about 30 metres below on his back, on a paved walkway in Taylor Creek Park. His death was quick.

I am not going to comment on whether or not he was guilty of the crime he was charged with (because I have no idea of the particulars of his arrest) but it is unfortunate that Canada lost a man with his background in aerodynamics. If he hadn’t been named in the press by the police, he would have still contributed his knowledge about travel in space.

Child exploitation charges are one of the fastest growing criminal offences in the U.S., and the conviction rates are high. In Canada, 1,600 child pornography offences were reported by police in 2009, up 13 per cent from a year earlier.

The fourth case involves musician Pete Townsend, who after admitting to looking at child pornography in 2002, said the public shame triggered thoughts of suicide. “If I had had a gun I would have shot myself,” he later told a reporter. “And if I had shot myself it would have been awful because it would have confirmed what everybody thought.” Townsend was cleared of criminal charges.

Guilty or not, the public “outing” by police and the media of those accused of child pornography crimes increases the suicide risk.

It’s a worse public shame than the public square when people were put in pillories. The people in the community would see you in the stocks and realize what you’ve done, and public shaming used to be a primary way of sanctioning people during the Colonial Period.

What we have now is akin to that, except that the community is CNN and local newspapers. It’s worldwide, which makes it even more difficult for those charged to contemplate an escape from the shame people believe that they rightly deserve to feel.

A 2010 U.S. study co-authored by FBI behavioural analysts, a Harvard doctor and a psychologist notes that police are not trained nor required to assess the suicide risk of those they charge with child sex offences. Awareness of the issue, the report concludes, might help reduce the risk.

Lois Powers of the John Howard Society of Toronto had a client who faced child exploitation charges relating to his granddaughter. He took his own life. “He was a man in his 60s who suddenly had no family at all,” she says.

Restorative justice programs, rather than the traditional criminal justice system, offer the best supports, Powers says. The health and safety of inmates is the responsibility of correctional institutions, which monitor for suicidal behaviour. However, those held in pre-trial custody have access to fewer supports than those convicted and serving time.

There was nothing to suggest Dyde expressed suicidal thoughts while in custody. But his lawyer, Pringle, said in an email to the Star that, in general, the “state in which the presumed innocent are held in pretrial custody is an abomination. This includes — but is not confined to — access to meaningful counselling. The government fails to fund the detention centres properly because taking care of prisoners is not a politically popular cause.

I feel strongly about the need to treat prisoners who are distressed while in custody and for that reason I volunteered my services as a counselor for several years in a detention centre where I counseled mentally ill and mentally disturbed prisoners.

The police should be cognizant of the risk in publicly releasing information when an individual faces this type of charge, along with personal details about that person’s life and occupation. Increased media attention into every aspect of the accused’s personal life exacerbates the stigma inherent in facing that type of charge and for this reason, it increases the risk of the accused committing suicide.
There are many who, disgusted by the nature of the crimes and helplessness of the victims, care less about the stigma and suicide risk of those who are charged. As one media outlet put it in an on-line headline following Dyde’s death: “Accused pervert escapes prosecution.” Referring the accused as a pervert when he hadn’t even been tried, is gross.

Here is how tbnewswatch.com described the arrest of someone charged with accessing child pornography.

“Police charged a Thunder Bay man for accessing child pornography following a major province-wide investigation. OPP officials announced Wednesday that officers conducted 44 searches, which resulted in 122 charges against 35 people. Searches took place at locations across the province. As a result of the investigation, a 61-year-old Thunder Bay man was charged with accessing child pornography. Across the province, police officers charged suspects with distribution of child pornography, making child pornography, accessing child pornography, and various drug offences. Police say addition charges are pending and that the investigation continues.”

You will notice that there was no mention of the suspect’s name.

I think the police name suspects in these kinds of cases because they want the punishment to begin long before they are tried. But what happens to them if they are acquitted? There are some people who will say, “Where there is smoke, there is fire.” The punishment continues for the rest of the innocent person’s life.


Suzanne said...

Why stop at child pornography?

Why name suspects in any major crime? Don't accused murderers get suicidal?

Question: how common is it for people to be wrongfully accused of sex crimes involving minors?

Rosalind said...

I was a systems analyst colleague of Richard Dyde at the British Library in the late '80s. He was a delightful colleague and a devoted father. I can just about imagine him being sensitive enough to take his life if accused of something so gross as involvement in child pornography. It is much harder to imagine him being involved.