Police may reveal faces of suspects in vicious crimes

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Police may reveal faces of suspects in vicious crimes

As the public demanded to see the face of a man suspected of a heinous crime, police said yesterday that they will devise internal guidelines about releasing photographs of certain suspects from now on.

Kim Kil-tae, the primary suspect in the rape and murder of 13-year-old Lee Yu-ri, was captured near a Busan marketplace on Wednesday. As he was escorted into the police station, his face was left uncovered - a change from the usual policy of concealing suspects’ faces with a mask or a hat.

The practice began in 2004 after the police faced fierce criticism for revealing the identities of suspects in the brutal group rape of a teenage girl in Milyang, Gyeonggi. The suspects were also students, and police were condemned for violating their rights.

Since then, police have reinforced measures to protect suspects’ identities. Even when suspects had been publicly identified and their names and photos shown on wanted posters and leaflets nationwide, police hid their faces in front of the media.

In addition, at the National Human Rights Commission’s recommendation, National Police Agency guidelines protected the rights of both suspects and victims by keeping their faces from the public while investigations were ongoing.

“The decision to reveal Kim’s face was not made by the National Police Agency,” said Kim Jung-hwak, the head of the agency’s investigation department. “The Busan Police have solid evidence, including traces of Kim’s DNA on the victim’s body, and his mug shot had been released to the media during the search for him, so they decided to reveal his face.”

The agency head said he would have preferred that the Busan Police hide Kim’s face, but that would have further enraged public opinion.

“It is hard to make a clear-cut rule, but we will have internal discussions to develop new guidelines,” he said.

The Lee Myung-bak administration has also sought to change the laws about revealing suspects’ identities. Last July, the cabinet approved a bill to make public the faces, names, ages and other information of suspected serial murderers and child sex offenders. The bill pending at the National Assembly would allow police to reveal that information when they had a confession or strong evidence linking a suspect to a crime.

Like the police, the national media have been reluctant to reveal the names and faces of suspects in high-profile crimes, but the practice is changing.

“When society demands it and law-enforcement authorities have enough evidence to prove the crime, the people have a right to know a suspect’s identity,” said attorney Park Yong-sang. “More and more court precedents are allowing the media to reveal information about suspects in vicious felonies.”

Some, however, approach the issue gingerly. “It’s one thing to make public a suspect’s face, age and other information if they’re wanted for arrest, but if their face is continuously exposed even after they’re captured there’s a possibility their human rights will be infringed,” said Professor Yoon Young-chul of Yonsei University’s Graduate School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

By Ser Myo-ja, Kwon Suk-chun [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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