Naming names

Pam
Pam Frampton
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Does the public always have a right to know?

Imagine if a prominent member of a large Newfoundland community was found guilty of having downloaded more than 300,000 pornographic images - many of them depicting children, and in this case, little girls.

Imagine that many of those little girls were posed in provocative positions that no little girl should ever be posed in, particularly for the viewing pleasure and sexual gratification of a depraved adult.

Imagine if a prominent member of a large Newfoundland community was found guilty of having downloaded more than 300,000 pornographic images - many of them depicting children, and in this case, little girls.

Imagine that many of those little girls were posed in provocative positions that no little girl should ever be posed in, particularly for the viewing pleasure and sexual gratification of a depraved adult.

Imagine that the man was found guilty of 25 counts of possessing objectionable material and one count of distributing porn. And that his punishment was four months of house arrest.

Would you want to know who he was? Where he lived? Whether his day-to-day life brought him into contact with children? Your children?

Of course you would.

So imagine your outrage if the judge in the case decided to permanently prohibit the man's name from being revealed in order to protect his family, his mental state, his ability to rehabilitate, and his wife's job.

Is that a fair trade, do you think? Is it OK that innocent children from God knows where were posed and exposed on the Internet, their faces and private parts bared, and yet this man's identity is protected?

Is it OK that he could live next door to you and your children and you not be told?

Perhaps he was your priest. Your daughter's soccer coach. The kindly man who used to work behind the counter at the corner store. Your young son's guitar teacher. The crossing guard. The manager of your kids' daycare centre. The family pediatrician.

The school bus driver, who is suddenly no longer on that route.

Do you have a right to know?

In Canada, thankfully, you do.

Because this country has a justice system that is meant to be accountable to the public, we have an open court system.

That means that once someone has been charged with an offence, their name becomes a matter of public record. There are, of course, exceptions. Publication bans are put in place in cases where naming the accused would also reveal the identity of victims, or in cases where the accused is not yet an adult.

An open court system means that members of the public can feel free to go to court, take a seat and listen in as someone's case is heard.

That is your right, and it is one way of ensuring that justice unfolds as it should, before impartial witnesses, and not just lawyers and judges and those with a vested interest in the outcome.

You also have the right not to pay attention.

At least here, we have options.

The fact is, most of us don't have time in our day-to-day lives to spend a few hours at the courthouse.

That's where the media comes in.

Major media outlets tend to have reporters specifically assigned to cover court. Once someone has been arrested and charges have been formally laid, the information gets posted on a court docket, which reporters check to see which matters are about to be heard. Then they decide which cases to cover.

The vast majority of court cases never make the news, because media organizations only have so many reporters that can be assigned to cover court on any given day.

And it's a difficult beat, with many legal intricacies and nuances to learn. One misstep on the reporter's part and they could find themselves being sued for libel or hauled before a judge for contempt.

It's often thankless, too. Most people facing charges hope their case passes under the media's radar, and more than one reporter has been accused of trying to ruin someone's life.

Sure, there are rare instances where people want their story told in public along with having their day in court, but for most it's bad enough to face the uncomfortable scrutiny of the justice system, let alone have your face plastered on the news.

And while it's true that everyone in our system is innocent until proven guilty, that can be cold comfort for a person being paraded past a phalanx of journalists on their way into court.

"Even if a person is acquitted or a stay (of proceedings) is entered, unfortunately, people think they've already been tried and convicted in the court of opinion," said Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Chief Joe Browne.

His police force has a policy of not releasing the names of suspects, except in rare circumstances, such as if someone is at large and thought to be dangerous, or if someone was charged in court and failed to show up for proceedings.

But even though the RNC doesn't name names in its news releases, Browne respects the right of the public to have access to that information and the media's right to report it.

"Technically speaking, you people could go down to court every morning, photocopy the docket and publish it in the paper with the names of everyone who's been charged - even the minor cases, like the (alleged) shoplifters, and it would be perfectly within your right to do that," the chief told The Telegram last week. "That's our judicial system."

Recently, The Telegram came under fire for running a front-page story naming a prominent hockey coach who is facing sexual assault charges.

Calling the media coverage an "insult to justice," one letter-writer to The Telegram wrote: "The innocent and the guilty should have a right to be protected from this kind of media until all the facts are in and the system speaks for the truth."

It's a potent argument, and one that holds sway in some quarters.

In New Zealand, for example, there is a name suppression policy which can be invoked in criminal matters.

In certain cases, the accused can ask to have his name banned from publication - not just when charges are first laid and as the trial unfolds, but even after the person has been convicted, sentenced and jailed.

Which brings us back to the scenario at the beginning of this column.

In New Zealand, it wasn't just a scenario. It was an actual case, where a convicted child pornographer's identity was permanently protected by the courts in a decision brought down on Feb. 5.

It was a decision that caused an outcry among those who feel that name suppression is not always applied consistently and fairly.

Next week: The perils of not naming names

Pam Frampton is The Telegram's story editor. She can be reached by e-mail at pframpton@thetelegram.com. Read her columns online at www.thetelegram.com.

Organizations: The Telegram

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Canada, New Zealand

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Recent comments

  • Taxpayer
    July 02, 2010 - 13:31

    The problem is that at the end of the trial it is less sexy to report that the person was found to be innocent and the public already has assumed guilty. It seems that this is less to do with the media and more to do with government that makes the rules on the timing of the release of names.

  • Eugene
    July 02, 2010 - 13:26

    The Other Half is from a smaller (than Town) community a short drive out the highway. While visiting in the fall we became aware, through the media, of the conviction of a 'child molester'. Upon closer investigation, sexual assault and sexual interference of a minor were the charges and the perpetrator was going to be released, after a short incarceration, for a monitored (ie. ankle bracelet) at-home conclusion to his sentence. The media (NTV) failed to name the convicted party and so did the CBC, after contacting the justice department I was told that the RCMP reserves the identity of the convict. The RCMP were not forthcoming with that information so we were left wondering which member of this small community was convicted of sexually assaulting young girls; surely someone with a 'reputation' to protect that held more 'value' for the community than the concerns of parents. This is not an isolated occurence, the major difference is that we know we are ignorant of something.

  • elizabeth
    July 02, 2010 - 13:19

    great topic, we are talking about a real crime on children .. it's getting worse.. 300,000 pictures of kids how much more proof do we need? what about these kids? who's fighting for them? By the time the law is finished with these sickos, the kids are responsible. this man gets to spend 4 months in his home do you think he is going to change? laws on abuse are a joke.

  • Kay
    July 02, 2010 - 13:18

    I think that in all honesty, regardless of the crime, names should not be released if it could hurt the rest of an innocent family. Not all wives, mothers, sisters, daughters know what the men in their families are looking at all the time, as do the men not know what the women are looking at. So why, if your husband decides to look at kiddie porn, should the whole family suffer? Put him in jail, put bans on his activities, but do not make the family suffer!

  • GAR
    July 02, 2010 - 13:17

    There is something inherently wrong when a person charged with an offence such as sexual assault or any serious charge, is paraded, in handcuffs, and his/her picture is plastered on the front page of a newspaper. Is that person not presumed innocent until proven otherwise ? If there really is a presumption of innocence, why is that person in handcuffs ? A person in handcuffs conveys the impression in peoples' minds that he/she has done something that is against the law and must therefore be restrained. In actual fact, that person, at that point in time, is as innocent as you and I and has not been convicted of anything. Who suffers the consequences if that person should be found innocent of the charges ? The police ? The courts ? The prosecutors ? The media ? The answer is, none of the above. The accused and his/her family will suffer the consequences. The damage will have been done to the name and reputation of an innocent person and that damage will never really go away. Innocent until proven guilty ? Yeah, right.

  • Polly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:12

    Working within the confines of the law is not a guarantee that justice will be served.A sterling example being the Richard Klassen case in Saskatoon in the early 1990s , where 12 people were wrongly assused of child abuse and they themselves were the victims of a malicious prosecution , according to a Court of Queens Bench judge.Lives can be permanently ruined,so guilt must be established beyond a shadow of a doubt before naming names.When guilt has been PROVEN , and only then can names be made public and the fallout must be dealt with.

  • Taxpayer
    July 01, 2010 - 20:19

    The problem is that at the end of the trial it is less sexy to report that the person was found to be innocent and the public already has assumed guilty. It seems that this is less to do with the media and more to do with government that makes the rules on the timing of the release of names.

  • Eugene
    July 01, 2010 - 20:13

    The Other Half is from a smaller (than Town) community a short drive out the highway. While visiting in the fall we became aware, through the media, of the conviction of a 'child molester'. Upon closer investigation, sexual assault and sexual interference of a minor were the charges and the perpetrator was going to be released, after a short incarceration, for a monitored (ie. ankle bracelet) at-home conclusion to his sentence. The media (NTV) failed to name the convicted party and so did the CBC, after contacting the justice department I was told that the RCMP reserves the identity of the convict. The RCMP were not forthcoming with that information so we were left wondering which member of this small community was convicted of sexually assaulting young girls; surely someone with a 'reputation' to protect that held more 'value' for the community than the concerns of parents. This is not an isolated occurence, the major difference is that we know we are ignorant of something.

  • elizabeth
    July 01, 2010 - 20:01

    great topic, we are talking about a real crime on children .. it's getting worse.. 300,000 pictures of kids how much more proof do we need? what about these kids? who's fighting for them? By the time the law is finished with these sickos, the kids are responsible. this man gets to spend 4 months in his home do you think he is going to change? laws on abuse are a joke.

  • Kay
    July 01, 2010 - 20:00

    I think that in all honesty, regardless of the crime, names should not be released if it could hurt the rest of an innocent family. Not all wives, mothers, sisters, daughters know what the men in their families are looking at all the time, as do the men not know what the women are looking at. So why, if your husband decides to look at kiddie porn, should the whole family suffer? Put him in jail, put bans on his activities, but do not make the family suffer!

  • GAR
    July 01, 2010 - 19:58

    There is something inherently wrong when a person charged with an offence such as sexual assault or any serious charge, is paraded, in handcuffs, and his/her picture is plastered on the front page of a newspaper. Is that person not presumed innocent until proven otherwise ? If there really is a presumption of innocence, why is that person in handcuffs ? A person in handcuffs conveys the impression in peoples' minds that he/she has done something that is against the law and must therefore be restrained. In actual fact, that person, at that point in time, is as innocent as you and I and has not been convicted of anything. Who suffers the consequences if that person should be found innocent of the charges ? The police ? The courts ? The prosecutors ? The media ? The answer is, none of the above. The accused and his/her family will suffer the consequences. The damage will have been done to the name and reputation of an innocent person and that damage will never really go away. Innocent until proven guilty ? Yeah, right.

  • Polly
    July 01, 2010 - 19:50

    Working within the confines of the law is not a guarantee that justice will be served.A sterling example being the Richard Klassen case in Saskatoon in the early 1990s , where 12 people were wrongly assused of child abuse and they themselves were the victims of a malicious prosecution , according to a Court of Queens Bench judge.Lives can be permanently ruined,so guilt must be established beyond a shadow of a doubt before naming names.When guilt has been PROVEN , and only then can names be made public and the fallout must be dealt with.