Should Suspects Be Paraded?

by Jideofor Adibe

The above question is generating increasing furore among our intellectuals, and ‘beer parlour’ political activists. Parading of suspects takes various forms: the police calling a press conference and triumphantly showing nabbed suspects of crime, or a top public functionary leaking to press allegations of crime, usually corruption, against another top official or former top official, often with an innuendo that the evidence against the suspect is incontrovertible. It is thought that Ribadu’s EFCC took the practice of parading suspects in the media to a dizzying height with his practice of accusing, trying and convicting suspects before remembering to add (as an afterthought perhaps) that ‘investigations are continuing’ in the case.

The practice of parading suspects is not unique to Nigeria. In the US for instance, while it is common for arrested suspects to be concealed from public view while in police custody to protect their privacy and reputation, it is sometimes unavoidable to expose them to the public while being tansported through public places. This is known as ‘perp walk’ (the ‘perp’ is short for ‘perpetrator’) and could be used as an opportunity by the police to parade the suspects by tipping the media and the public of the planned ‘walk’. For instance, Lee Harvey Oswald, the presumed assassin of US President John F Kennedy, was paraded in front of TV cameras several times as he was moved from place to place in Dallas Police Headquarters, and was even allowed occasionally to speak to the media. He was shot dead in one of such “perp walks” by Jack Ruby while being led to a vehicle for transfer to the county jail. In the same vein, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was paraded before television cameras nearly three hours before he was officially arrested for the bombing. ‘Perp walks’ are also done to politicians or business people accused of white-collar crimes.

In the UK, ‘name and shame’ – a practice aimed at discouraging anti-social or criminal activity by publishing the names of those involved- is not very different from parading suspects. The UK uses the ‘name and shame’ policy variously, including against shoplifters, abortionists, graffiti artists and customers of prostitutes. In fact, The Rat Book, the UK’s biggest ‘name and shame’ website, which was launched in late 2009, contained, as of January 2010, the details of over 14,000 criminal charges and convictions on sundry issues, including paedophilia, rape, murder, violent crime, abuse and terrorism.

A major difference between the parading of suspects in USA and UK, and Nigeria, is that the investigative process is so robust in these countries that often the police and authorities would make an arrest only when they feel they have sufficient evidence for a successful prosecution. In Nigeria on the other hand, we seem to act often on the spur of the moment.

There are legitimate concerns about the practice of parading suspects, not least because the presumption of innocence until convicted by a competent court of law, is seen as a fundamental human right. Additionally, the right to one’s reputation is universally seen as part of human dignity. Recently the Commandant General of the Nigerian Peace Corps Ambassador Dickson Akor called for legislation restraining the police from parading suspects after the police invaded his office and later called a press conference accusing him of training and arming youths. A Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court dismissed the charges brought against him and six others. Similarly in March 2010, Justice Akinjide Ajakaiye of the Federal High Court in Lagos reportedly warned the CBN Governor Lamido Sanusi to stop parading suspects in the media.

In Nigeria, supporters and opponents of parading suspects have their arguments:

One, supporters argue that the humiliation of being publicly paraded could be a good deterrence against crime and unacceptable anti-social behaviour. They also posit that parading suspects helps to reassure the public that the system works and that criminals will eventually be smoked out. As the criminologist Robert McCrie would put it: ”When we see that someone has been apprehended, looking forlorn and beshackled, it indicates that the system is working, and that the defendant will get his just deserts.” Opponents however fear that the police or public authorities in a desperate bid to show off their crime fighting skills, or to hug publicity or legitimise their policies, may act too quickly before the facts are fully available. A good example here is the Central Bank under Lamido Sanusi publishing the list of debtors to banks, only to later admit, when challenged, that its initial list contained typographical errors.

Two, opponents of parading suspects argue that it prejudices the trial of the suspects by putting the judges under tremendous public and media pressure. They point out that the public, and the vocal media, will often demonise and forever caricature a judge who rules against popular sentiments irrespective of the weight of evidence before the judge in the case. Supporters of the practice however counter that since Nigeria does not run a jury system, the judges, as trained professionals, cannot possibly be swayed by the emotionalism of media and public trial. Opponents of parading suspects sneer at this point, noting that even the integrity of many judges are routinely called into question.

Three, supporters of parading suspects argue that in our type of system, where justice could be bought or unnecessarily delayed, parading suspects offers instant ‘justice’ in the court of public opinion – when the case is still fresh and before the suspects have the time to pull the strings. Opponents however counter that given the time it takes to prosecute a case, and the pervasive belief that justice could be bought and sold, even if a suspect is eventually acquitted, many will still believe the person has simply paid off the judges, meaning that the suspect’s reputation will remain forever damaged in the court of public opinion. They also note that many who witnessed the initial parade may not be aware of the eventual exoneration of the suspects.

Based on the above arguments and from the practice in other parts of the world, I will argue that parading of suspects does have a place in our society, but needs to be reformed to prevent abuse. I will recommend the following:

First, there is a need for an exhaustive taxonomy of the types of crimes and anti-social behaviour that warrants the parading of suspects.

Second, there should be a guideline of ‘tests’ to be met before the suspects are paraded. Part of these tests should be evidence that the suspects were given fair hearing and that a certain number of officials involved in the interrogation of the suspects must agree on such a parade. A component of such ‘tests’ could be an assessment that without such parading, the accused may elope or cause further danger to the society before they are charged to court. The UK and the US for instance have ‘responsible journalism’ tests often used by judges in defamation proceedings against the media.

Third, crimes in which vendetta or hidden agenda is possible, especially against politicians and public officials, could require more stringent tests before the suspects are paraded. Given the propensity to use allegations of corruption to smear opponents in our culture, this will help to prevent witch-hunting or using others to achieve cheap popularity.

Fourth, suspects paraded, and later found not guilty, should equally be paraded when acquitted, and the accusing police or public authority made to publicly apologise to them and pay symbolic compensation for damaged reputation. This will not only help to restore damaged reputation but also put the reputation of the pa

rading authority on the line.

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