The perils of the ‘perp walk’

At this point we’re all familiar with it: an endless loop on television of the latest celebrity/politician/famous-for-no-good-reason person being escorted in handcuffs by law enforcement from the home or office into a waiting police car. This has become an American phenomenon. Well, to be fair, we’re in good company with Mexico, Thailand and China (although China appears to have seen the light). If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the “perp walk” is a timeless Greek tragedy we never get tired of: a soaring personality who, after scaling the heights of fame and power, cowers in shame and embarrassment after a magnificent fall. I’m not certain what this says about America, but there certainly seems to be tension between our thirst for “reality entertainment” and the presumption of innocence we value in our criminal justice system. One of the many trial spectators at the Casey Anthony trial estimated spending $3,000 in hotel fees and other expenses to stand in line and sit in the courtroom. With that kind of interest, it’s no wonder the networks will clamor to the scene to get a clip of the latest perp walk. The U.S. Supreme Court and Maryland law have recognized that prejudice to a defendant can arise from shackling him or her in the courtroom and require the government to show security interests outweigh any prejudice. So having a defendant paraded before a jury in shackles during trial may be grounds for mistrial. Even a jury’s glimpse of a defendant in prison overalls could get the case overturned on appeal.