[Viewpoint]The debate over mug shots

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[Viewpoint]The debate over mug shots

Does the face of a suspected felon re-enacting his self-confessed serial killings deserve to be hidden? Are the rights of the felony suspect more important than the public’s right to know?

A debate recently emerged over Kang Ho-sun’s alleged serial killings.

With rapid development of telecommunications, crimes have increasingly attracted public attention. A criminal becomes a hero, the public becomes an audience and the crime becomes a drama. Such a crime intended to draw attention to oneself and seek the public attention is called a “theatrical crime.”

But most times, crimes are committed secretly. Then, police or prosecutors find some clues leading to the criminal and a suspect is tried in an open court. The trial will be at the center of public attention and it seems natural that the suspect’s face will be made public by the mass media.

Then, why does an investigative authority try to conceal a suspect’s face? It’s because of the constitutional principle of the presumption of innocence; that is, all suspects are considered innocent until proven guilty. It is possible that a suspect is acquitted at the end of a trial, but making public the identity of the suspect can brand him or her as a criminal. That will lead to irreversible damage.

Unless a suspect is already a public figure, many will agree that an investigative authority must never intentionally make public the suspect’s identity and personal details. It is also important to keep in mind that society’s sanctions on a suspect and his or her family can be crueler than legal punishment.

It is, however, questionable whether the state can stop all exposure of a suspect’s face and identity during the course of investigation and trial. In modern states, personal revenge by a victim has been forbidden. In return, the state assumed the role of punisher. State authorities, such as the police and prosecution, now speak on behalf of the victim.

That is why a revision in the criminal laws is being sought to allow a victim to not only examine a suspect and witnesses in a courtroom but also voice opinions about punishment. In advanced countries, such as the United States and England, guaranteeing the rights of a victim and family is one of the reasons to publicize a suspect’s face.

Hiding the face of a self-confessed serial killer during a site re-enactment of a crime is an excessive service to the suspect and it is an act that insults the victims’ families. The police have failed to protect the innocent women, but they talk about the suspect’s human rights in front of the grieving families. That can be seen as an abuse of the state’s power.

It is time for society to reconsider the argument that the investigative authorities should decide whether or not a suspect’s face should be made public. True, the suspect and his or her family can face cruel criticism when he or she is identified. But publishing a photo can bring a positive benefit to the public. Namely, seeing a photo can jog memories and bring forth eyewitness testimony.

And yet, making a decision by comparing the two aspects can bring about a new debate. The decision by an investigative authority to publicize a photo of a suspect can bring charges of discrimination. Why do they choose to make one face public while hiding another? During an interrogation, the threat of making a suspect’s face public can be abused.

Unless media reports on a suspect’s identity are restricted during an investigation or a trial for the special purpose of protecting the public interest, it is inevitable that the face of a suspect is exposed by the media. The more the investigative authorities try to hide it, the more sensational it becomes, causing an even more serious human rights violation.

The media should decide whether or not to make public a mug shot of a suspect. The media should think deeply what is most important: Is it the people’s right to know, or is it the victim’s right to presumed innocence? To this end, we need additional protective measures such as clear reporting guidelines or establishment of an organization such as the Press Council of Sweden and Finland.

Protecting the human rights of a suspect and a victim is the state’s duty. It has the duty to respect the intention of the people, who gave investigative rights to the state, and to respect the victim’s emotions. The Kang Ho-sun case must serve as the touchstone to clear up the confusion and debate over publicizing a suspect’s face.

*The writer is a professor of law at Sungkyunkwan University. Translation by JoongAng Daily staff.

by Roh Myung-sun
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