Naming Names: The Media and Criminal Suspects

January 3, 2013

A police officer in Minnesota was killed a few weeks ago when he responded to a call to assist a reportedly suicidal man . Authorities describe the killing as an “ambush.”  The allegedly suicidal man, Ryan Larson, was taken into custody and determined to be a suspect. Except in the subsequent days, the police were unable to gather enough evidence to keep Larson incarcerated, or to charge him with the crime, and he was released.

Minnesota Public Radio’s Bob Collins blogged about the naming of suspects in the media, noting media policies regarding the release of suspect names prior to the filing of charges. Collins mentions in his blog post that media will typically not name suspects until charges are filed. But in the Cold Spring case, media organizations seemed to waive this policy when authorities named Larson right away. Larson continues to be designated a suspect in the media.

The issue of naming suspects in the media gained a national spotlight two weeks ago when several media organizations mistakenly reported that Ryan Lanza was the perpetrator of the Connecticut school shooting, when in fact, it was Ryan’s brother Adam who was later determined to be the killer. See  12/15/12 AP Online Reg. – US 04:22:08 (Westlaw Citation to AP article).  Ryan Lanza’s Facebook account, and the Twitter account of another, unrelated individual of the same name became targets for the media and the public at large. Both individuals pleaded innocence after receiving questions and threats on their respective accounts. See the UK Telegraph article at 2012 WLNR 27131915.

So what are the repercussions of being identified as a criminal suspect in the media? One can imagine that such accusations, even if later determined to be in error, can cause no small amount of damage. To start, I ran a very general search in WestlawNext on media, crime, and the naming of suspects.

MEDIA COVERAGE OF CRIME & NAMING SUSPECTS

A quick glance at secondary sources shows me that we’re getting articles about pre-trial publicity and changing venue. This isn’t really what I was looking for, so I change my search up a bit:

MEDIA NAMING SUSPECTS PRIOR TO CHARGES

This is a narrower search. I jump directly into secondary sources again to see what this might be pulling up. I notice one of my first articles is this:

Sadiq Reza, “Privacy and the Criminal Arrestee or Suspect: In Search of A Right, in Need of A Rule,” 64 Md. L. Rev. 755 (2005)

This article seems to be getting closer to the issues we’re interested in:

Criminal accusation stigmatizes. Merely having been accused of a crime lasts in the public eye, damaging one’s reputation and threatening current and future employment, relationships, social status, and more. But vast numbers of criminal cases are dismissed soon after arrest, and countless accusations are unfounded or unprovable.

This article goes on to argue that criminal suspects should have some element of protection in the form of privacy rights, including a requirement that law enforcement be required to “withhold the identities of arrestees and suspects until a judge or a grand jury has found probable cause of guilt, unless an arrestee or suspect requests otherwise.”

The article mentions how criminal accusations might tarnish a reputation. I reformulated my search using the term, “reputation.”

MEDIA CRIMINAL ACCUSATIONS NAMING SUSPECTS REPUTATION

My first case is about a suspect in a murder investigation suing law enforcement and local media for defamation:  Stokes v. CBS Inc., 25 F. Supp. 2d 992 (D. Minn. 1998).

The court in Stokes denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, holding that a deputy’s statements regarding his personal belief that the suspect had committed the crime, were “capable of defamatory meaning as broadcast,” and that there were genuine issues of material fact existing in regards to whether statements could be proven false, whether the suspect incurred actual harm, and whether defendants acted with actual malice. The Court also held that the deputy was not entitled to immunity, and neither he, nor the media, were entitled to qualified privilege.

Other cases that appeared in my initial case results:

Matter of Death of Manners, 542 N.Y.S.2d 485 (1989)– Uncharged suspect’s privacy interest outweighed media’s interest in disclosure of proceedings to compel suspect to provide a blood sample.

Bryant v. Cox Enterprises, Inc., 311 Ga. App. 230 (2011), – This is the Richard Jewell libel decision. Jewell was a security guard who was named as suspect in Atlanta Olympic Games bombing. He was later exonerated and Eric Rudolph admitted responsibility for the bombing, but Jewell suffered no small amount of negative media attention. Jewell sued a newspaper and its reporters for libel. The court rejected his claims, holding that the newspaper articles were “substantially true” at the time of publication, and thus were not defamatory. The court also held that a newspaper column that compared Jewell to a local convicted child serial killer was not defamatory.

When I checked out the Secondary Source results for this query, I see some general libel and defamation articles, but the results also include the following:

Richard J. Peltz, “Fifteen Minutes of Infamy: Privileged Reporting and the Problem of Perpetual Reputational Harm,” 34 Ohio N.U. L. Rev. 717 (2008)

Dean R. Dietrich, “Talking to the News Media About Criminal Legal Matters,” 83-APR Wis. Law. 22 (2010)

R. Taylor Matthews III, “The Duke Lacrosse Rape Case-A Public Branding, Is There A Remedy?,” 52 St. Louis U. L.J. 669 (2008)

Peter B Kutner, “What Is Truth?: True Suspects and False Defamation,” 19 Fordham Intell. Prop. Media & Ent. L.J. 1 (2008)

The tragedy of these types of events is so profound, and the desire for immediate, up-to-the-minute information unfortunately can lead to mistakes in media reports. But such mistakes can cause even further distress in the lives of those who might be falsely accused, or misidentified in the investigative process. We’ve seen articles, and cases here that address these issues. These issues are definitely deserving of attention and thought. I’m certain that they will continue to be explored in the future, as social media and online news reporting continues to expand, becoming an integral source of up-to-date information and news in our society.

 

[Update:

Late last week police in the Cold Spring case made some significant announcements. First, it has been reported that investigators recovered the gun used in the killing. Second, the individual connected to the gun, Eric Thomes, committed suicide. Reports indicate that Thomes had been questioned several times, and agents found inconsistencies in his answers, and that he committed suicide as agents approached his property. The St. Cloud Times timeline is here – 2013 WLNR 333130. The weapon was found in a later search on  separate property that Thomes allegedly had access to. Investigators and police maintain that despite these new discoveries, they have NOT excluded anyone as a suspect in the case.  Bob Collins, of the MPR News Cut blog, helps us read between the lines:

But BCA superintendent Wade Setter said “We have not excluded anyone as a suspect in this case,” and said it would be “premature” to suggest Thomes did it.

That’s got to sting Ryan Larson, who is the “anyone” Setter is referring to.”

He also notes that “almost every subsequent news story about Officer Decker’s killer included a mug shot of Larson, who feared enough for his safety that he didn’t return to his apartment for days.” ]