California Bar Journal
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Verdicts belong with juries
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It is time to adopt strict laws which prohibit law enforcement agents from making public pronouncements of a suspect's guilt. The recent fiasco by the FBI regarding the Yosemite murders dramatically underscores the need for this type of regulation.

We witnessed a highly experienced and, until then, highly regarded agent-in-charge announce confidently and without qualification that the killers of three women were in custody. The agent named these men and even stated that the FBI laboratory in Washington, D.C., had used the well-established forensic evidence technique of fiber analysis to conclusively prove their guilt.

After several months went by without these men being charged, another brutal Yosemite murder of a woman took place. This time, if Cary Stayner's own words are to be believed, it turned out that he is the killer of all four victims.

Memories are short, so perhaps we need to be reminded of the Olympic Park bombings in Atlanta a few years ago. In that case, too, the FBI focused its publicly stated belief of guilt on a hapless and innocent security guard. In addition to violating all the legal and professional rules relating to proper interrogation and trampling on the Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights of this man, the FBI put out a barrage of information that convicted him, not just without trial but also without a shred of evidence.

Recall, for example, the inference of guilt we were told we should draw about that man because he was overweight, he was a "police wannabe," and he lived with his mother.

These events do much more harm than merely causing the country's top law enforcement agency to appear pathetically inept. These practices are outrageously unjust, and they are very dangerous.

Historically, our criminal justice system has had some of the greatest travesties and miscarriages of justice occur because of law enforcement officers jumping to a conclusion, publicly announcing that conclusion to the world, and locking themselves into a belief that excluded anything to the contrary.

Peter KeaneTragic injustices such as the conviction of Dr. Sam Shepherd in the 1950s murder of his wife, which modern DNA evidence now proves he did not commit, are illustrative of hundreds of such known situations and undoubtedly countless others which were never uncovered. In Shepherd's case, the police, early on, announced their confident belief in his guilt to the public and drove the process relentlessly and unalterably toward his wrongful conviction.

Once law enforcement officers render public verdicts of guilt without trial, all other leads and directions are abandoned by them. In the Yosemite murders, the FBI disregarded Stayner after their initial scrutiny of him, once they had proclaimed the other men guilty. The result was that another victim lost her life.

So we see that a public statement that someone is guilty is the antithesis of solid, professional police work. Trails go cold, are simply ignored or, even worse, are covered up by law enforcement agents who then won't pursue the truth at the expense of having to eat their words. Innocent people like Shepherd spend years in prison and have their lives broken. Some, like Bartolomeo Vanzetti, are executed, only to have later events prove conclusively that they are not guilty.

The British justice system is far superior to ours on this point. No public pronouncements are made about suspects during an investigation except where there is a need to alert the public to a fleeing fugitive. If a suspect is detained, police do not name the person until he or she has been charged.

Even after someone is charged, officials make no statements about the evidence. The public determination of guilt or innocence is left where it belongs - with a jury.

We should adopt these procedures.

Peter G. Keane is dean of the Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco and noted commentator on legal issues.