Monday 17 June 2013

Innocence  is  often  ignored  by  the  media,  the  police  and employers   


It is bad enough for innocent accused persons to be subjected to bad publicity and trials to boot but when they are cleared of any wrong doing, the tarnish on their character with respect to the previous accusation lingers on these unfortunate people because the media on occasion has decided not to do a follow up as to his acquittal because they that have other stories to tell that are more important to them.  With news being instantly transmitted through the Internet or social media, it’s also important to know that much exoneration take place out of the spotlight.


The police have a vested interest in making arrests, laying charges, and putting out press releases, even when some of their cases are weak cases. In those cases where there is really very little evidence against the accused that will hold up in court. The stories about the crime and the accused person as soon as it is published begins spiraling the innocent accused person into ruin and saddles him with a tarnished reputation that fill follow him FOR many years wherever he goes.  


Employers are unforgiving as a rule when an employee is accused of a crime. They are concerned about the bad publicity that ensues when an employee is written about in the media so they fire them on some phony pretext.


Let’s consider the case of Travis Tremell, a Brooklyn man who was accused of killing a 52-year-old man named Early Williams in a botched 2006 armed robbery.  In December 2006, Tremell was in drug program after pleading guilty to drug charges.  On December 2, 2006, at 6:28 p.m. — the time would prove important — three armed robbers forced their way into an apartment in Brooklyn.  There was little to steal, and at some point, a neighbor named Earl Williams was called via cellphone. He answered the call, went to the apartment and was shot in the shoulder.  Williams died a few hours later.  Three witnesses picked Tremell out of a lineup or from photos.  He told the investigating detectives, “I did not rob anyone. Who said that I did it? I did not do it.” Of course just because someone denies having committed a crime, isn’t proof of innocence.


He told his appointed lawyer, David T. Roche, that he had called a car service to take him to see a girlfriend in Park Slope that afternoon. Roche called United Express Car and Limo Service, and there it was, call No. 1688, originating at Mr. Tremell’s aunt’s house in Bedford-Stuyvesant, destination Eighth Avenue in Park Slope.  The time was 5:40 p.m. Tremell said that after visiting his girlfriend, he took another car service home, after walking directly to a dispatcher’s office. That service told Roche that visits like that should be logged, but usually are not.  Roche drove the route and found that it would have been very difficult for Tremell to go to his girlfriend’s house and return to the commit the crime within 48 minutes.  As the alibi developed, the prosecutors seemed to have found other evidence clearing Tremell, and the charges against him were dismissed on April 4, 2007, almost four months after his arrest.  Ultimately, the police found two other suspects. Tremell was very fortunate to only spend four months in jail as a wrongfully accused man.  His alibi could be proven.   

Why wasn’t an article about his exoneration ever written? Pick a reason. There is no indication it was announced by the prosecution or the police, and neither Mr. Tremell nor his family or lawyer called reporters with the news which they should have. The homicide was not the sort of high-profile case that led newspapers to routinely update its status. The dismissal of the charges against him went unnoticed. 

Would media attention have helped Tremell in dealing with the stigma attached to the news of his arrest?  Would the news have helped him find a job?  Wishful thinking says yes but we will never know.  What we do know is that it cost him financial aid at a college he applied to. He was out of work, but conceded he hadn’t been looking very hard. He assumed that his arrest which was publicized would keep potential employers from hiring him.  

Lazy journalists will often act as unwitting collaborators in this kind of damaging drama. In their reporting, they will cite police officials or unofficial reports when an alleged criminal is arrested and then they completely ignore the story thereafter, even when the original accusations are shown to be bogus.

One unfortunate man who was falsely accused of underage sex crimes had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to remove lies about him from the Internet. But accomplishing that is an almost impossible task. One Canadian newspaper he contacted refused to take down its original story about his arrest from Google which still pops up in the first few Google hits on his name since the news item was nominally based on a completely discredited police press release. He couldn’t sue the police because it didn’t constitute libel.

You can easily spend thousands of dollars on lawyers to get the Internet to remove false accusations and you still won’t get everything removed. The most maddening aspect of all this is that there are no consequences for the police and prosecutors who casually — or sometimes recklessly — got the ball rolling in the first instance by distorting the truth, or by giving credence to clearly false accusations.

Ray Collingham, a Toronto-area gym coach was arrested in 2007 on the basis of emails that obviously had been fabricated by the mother of the boy whom Colligham had been accused of abusing. Since his civil lawsuit in which he sued the Peterborough/Laklefield police for $5 million, the police contacted the landlord of the building where he was trying to start a personal training gym and informed him what Collingham was charged with. They also called other martial art gyms about his charges.

In some cases, employers have compounded the injustice of false accusations by firing or disciplining an employee who was charged with a crime before he has had his day in court. Jean Lauzon, was an Ottawa paramedic until 2009, when he was falsely accused of sexually assaulting a mentally unbalanced patient in the course of treatment. While on bail, he wasn’t permitted to work.

Even when an accused is found not guilty, if his name has been bandied about in the media, the gossipers can really do him harm even if the media has published the fact that the court ruled that he was not guilty of the crime he was originally charged with.

Gossip is often negative in nature, or else it exaggerates the truth in some way. The result is that when the subject of the gossip finds out what people have been saying about him, he is hurt, not only by what has been said and the lies that have been told, but by the fact that people find it acceptable to spread such rumors without thought whatsoever for him or his family’s feelings. The emotional damage done by gossip can be difficult to heal, and may affect an individual's self-esteem. Gossip can also have a lasting effect on an individual's reputation, even if it is wholly untrue, as often people are prepared to believe rumor rather than discover the truth for themselves.

This is why it is absolutely necessary that the media write an article detailing why the accused was acquitted.  Admittedly an article saying that the case against him was dismissed on a technicality will do considerable harm but if the judge ruled or if the prosecutor stated that there was insufficient evidence to convict him, the harm will be lessened but the rumors will still be there flitting about like mosquitoes. However, if he is acquitted because the court clearly stated that there was no evidence against him that would convince a jury that he was guilty, then that statement should be published and I don’t meant published in a small column hidden away somewhere in the newspaper.

Many people have no idea just how much harm can come to innocent people who are charged with a crime and the general public knows all about the supposed crime.

Whatever David Dewees did or did not do in 2009, he was not accused of what The Toronto Star printed before he committed suicide by laying across railroad tracks. The Toronto Star said in an article that he was accused of molesting children. After he died, the Star asked a rhetorical question in a follow up article—“Was it guilt of another kind, shame and self-loathing that made the 32-year-old lie down on the tracks at High Park subway station Saturday morning rather than face trial?” The Star had previously written that he had actually molested little boys. The Star got the charges wrong in a digest item that said that Dewees had been charged with sexually assaulting two 13-year-olds. There was no assault alleged by the police. The newspaper admitted that the police had withheld the details of any alleged crime but still the Star speculated in the prose of yellow journalism in that case, that Dewees must have been guilty of that horrible crime.

There are lessons to be learned from these terrible examples. First, the media should be very careful what they tell the general public about the people who are charged with crimes. They should presume that the readers and viewers who receive the information from the various kinds of media are all gossipers and their gossiping will spread around the community faster than a common cold. Employers should not prejudge the guilt or innocence of accused persons until after the trial is over and if appealed, then when the appeal court has made its final ruling. The police are not supposed to spread unfounded rumors and if they do, they should be punished.

Many years ago, a sergeant in the Toronto police service posted a notice on his division’s bulletin board that I was not a friend of the police and that I should be approached with caution. Anyone reading that notice would have suspicions that I must be an armed felon on the run. The sergeant later said that he only meant that I would file complaints against any officer who I believed had done me wrong. Well as to be expected, that is what I did to him. His promotion was subsequently put on hold for the next five years.

A couple of years ago, I wrote in my blog about a man who was a brother of two fraud artists. The newspapers said that the man (I had been writing about in part) had been arrested by the police and charged with fraud.  It wasn’t until June 2013, when I received an email from his lawyer telling me that the man was later acquitted of any wrongdoing. The first thing I did after receiving that new information was to go back to my article and excise everything I said that referred to him and then at the top of the article, I stated that I had told my readers that he was charged but only learned much later that he was acquitted of any wrongdoing. That in my opinion is how responsible journalism should be.

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