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Perp Walk Squawk

Here it is: the parade of the accused known for a century or more among cops, prosecutors and reporters as the "perp walk" is fine by me.

Sure I know the arguments against  the perp walk, highly charged into an international debate about how the rights and figure of accused sexual predator Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund and a leading French politician, were debased by the Manhattan District Attorney and the NYPD. The pro-elitist writer Bernard-Henri Lévy argued in the Daily Beast that DSK's perp walk "could only degenerate into globally observed torture—high punishment for a crime, which no one, at that point, knew whether or not he had committed. This vision of Dominique Strauss-Kahn humiliated in chains, dragged lower than the gutter—this degradation of a man whose silent dignity couldn’t be touched, was not just cruel, it was pornographic."

Yet there's a liberal's view of this that goes beyond the culturally instinctive side-taking with a poor, immigrant maid against a wealthy and powerful man (the real circulation-based bias the tabloids, by the way). Of course, it helps that this particularly liberal spent a decade as a print report in the Bronx, and - uh - participated in several prominent perp walks of the borough's corrupt political establishment, London Fog-over-handcuffs style. I offer three points in favor of the perp walk:

- The accused is alive, generally un-abused, and in good health. (Though in the case of one history's most infamous perp walks, that of Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, that condition didn't last long).

- The alleged perpetrator moves publicly from the status of police detainee - the arrested - to the jurisdiction of a court, as a defendant legally entitled to a liberal and long-test web of rights and privileges. (Transferring defendants from holding cells to arraignment in public - with a tip-off to the press - is basically the essence and necessary origin of the perp walk).

- The rights of the free press to witness the operations of the justice system (including police agencies and prosecutors) are enhanced, banishing any hint of prior restraint or secret extra-judicial proceedings. This matters deeply, especially to this free speech absolutist; we are entitled to see the accused and see, through the news media, the turning of the gears of justice.

Inelegant, old school, and staged as it might be (and obviously serving the purpose of a victory lap for police and pre-trial leverage for prosecutors), the perp walk is part of the public's participation in the justice system. Much of the argument against hauling DSK before the cameras on the way to his arraignment focused on his status as an accomplished person, a liberal politician, an important man. In this country, we perp walk all the top accused felons, from the Son of Sam to corrupt cops and once-powerful politician to drug dealers and rapists. As Jay McInerney put it: "New York's a tough place. Deal with it."

As I recall from my days on the beat, the system is simple. In practice, perp walks are reserved for major violent crimes, large-scale busts (like organized crime or drug operations), or anything approaching strong public interest. When a suspect was due to be arraigned, an advisory would be sent: such and such a Precinct, this time, side door. And that'd be it. You'd race over there with a photographer to "make the perp" (I never shouted questions - some things are beyond the pale - but sometimes defendants would make statements on their own, usually defiant).

For all its evident faults, the perp walk is part of system of justice that is deeply at odds with the U.S. response to crimes of terrorism. Since 9/11, we've sadly moved toward a secret system of tribunals, torture, rendition, and deep secrecy. When Glenn Greenwald writes of "the always-expanding National Security State," it  makes you yearn for the simple, public prosecution of terror suspects in open court. In a more confident, less frightened justice system, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would have been perp-walked in New York on his way to trial by the citizenry the 9/11 killers attacked. Instead, he's hidden away and headed for tribunal; he and four other 9/11 terror suspects will face a military trial at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, under orders of the Obama Administration.Their images are closely controlled by military authorities. This is secret justice and, in my view, comes close to no justice at all if the quality of judgment and punishment is directly linked to the will of the people.

So call me crazy you lovers of the elite, I'd rather see the criminal defendants in a democratic society wedged between two burly detectives enroute to arraignment, cameras whirring and flashes lighting up the justice system like daylight itself.

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