When the first images of a rumpled and handcuffed Dominique Strauss-Kahn scowling his way into the back of a police cruiser hit the papers and Internet on May 15, the French were shocked and outraged. The Americans, less so. The Strauss-Kahn case has illuminated cultural differences between the French and American justice systems over the past six weeks but few were as sharp as the response to the “perp walk.”
But while former justice minister Elisabeth Guigou was telling France-Info Radio, “I found that image to be incredibly brutal, violent and cruel,” here in the United States, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was shrugging his shoulders about it in print. “If you don’t want to do the perp walk, don’t do the crime,” became his refrain. But now that the case is faltering, he’s changing his tune, and so are others.
As the first weeks of L’Affair DSK progressed, the French stayed unimpressed with the perp walk, and while the Americans didn’t rush to defend it, exactly, many took up positions of not being bothered by it, just like Bloomberg. The New York Times ran a piece by Sam Roberts in the City Room blog about the “American Rite” of the perp walk, which sidestepped a judgment call on the practice by profiling those who had formed it into what it is. Poynter spent a lot of words exploring the legality, ethics, and even the possible necessity of the perp walk. There was, at the time, plenty of questioning as to just how ethical the practice was–take, for example, Leigh Jones’s Reuters piece pointing to it as undermining the presumption of innocence–but few American commentators took the position that it should end.
There’s been a palpable change in mood following the public implosion of the Strauss-Kahn prosecution’s case on Friday. Since then, we’ve started seeing essays such as Tony Dokoupil’s in the Daily Beast on Friday, in which Alan Dershowitz called the perp walk is “an abomination to justice,” and Gene Healy’s column in the Washington Examiner calling the perp walk “a practice any country devoted to the rule of law should reject.”
But perhaps the most significant rejection of the practice comes from Bloomberg himself, purely because he was so widely quoted in his vague support for the practice. Today, Bloomberg told reporters, “I’ve always thought that the perp walks were outrageous.” He went on during a press conference, which the New York Daily News’s Erin Einhorn transcribed. “If somebody is innocent, and even if they’re guilty, they’re not guilty until they’re convicted and yet we vilify them for the benefit of theater, for the circus,” he said. “You know, they did it in Roman times, too. It’s nothing new.” Also not new: telling the public what it wants to hear.