Arrests mean they got the bad guy, right?

Scott Greenfield’s blog brought this story to my attention:

A parolee released from prison just two and a half weeks ago was arrested Saturday in connection with the worst carnage the City of Buffalo has experienced in at least three decades.

But before the day ended, law enforcement officials said they think they got the wrong man.

They went on to dismiss the charges against the guy. So, in some ways – this is a happy story. Guy got arrested, D.A. looked into it and realized that he didn’t do it, guy was sent on his way and returned to his life. Hooray! The system works!

Greenfield talks about how, thanks to the video of the crime in action, the D.A. was able to determine that they had the wrong person. And he’s lucky – we all are – that there was a video in this case. What’s interesting to me is how many cases have no cut-and-dried video evidence, and what that means.

If you ask, say, the San Francisco Chronicle, which declared Philip Markoff to be “The Craigslist Killer” without so much as an “alleged” in front of it (0r even the quotes around the words that New York magazine and AOL used in their headline, as if to say, “other people call him the Craigslist Killer even though he was never convicted, and we’re only quoting them, because we are responsible news organizations*), then the arrest of a guy without video evidence to prove his innocence means that he’s the bad guy. If it weren’t for that tape, then Keith Johnson, the parolee briefly arrested for the “worst carnage the city of Buffalo has experienced in at least three decades”, would be The Buffalo Wedding Warmaker, or whatever alliterative turn of phrase stuck to the guy. In the interest of being responsible, they might have tossed a perfunctory “accused” or “alleged” before the title, but it’d have been clear – this is the fella who did it. The police arrested him, after all…

And it’s not exactly news that the entire system, from the police who make the arrest to the D.A.’s who prosecute the arrested to the journalists who report the arrests, are stacked against the defendant – even when that defendant has nothing to link him to the crime except the fact that he was recently paroled, so if something bad happened, he probably did it – but it’s still important to remember. And it’s on us, too – you and me – because we like to know what we’re talking about, and like to have some certainty when we discuss current events. So calling Markoff the guy who might have been the Craigslist Killer is bulky, and calling Johnson the guy accused of the Buffalo carnage means we can’t even begin to talk about what they deserve, and where’s the fun in that? Journalists and their editors give their readers what they want, most of the time.

* full disclosure: I write for AOL, though I try to avoid scare quotes when I do so.

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