Monday, November 12, 2012
The following opinion by Jonathan Kay was published by the National Post (Canada) on November 12, 2012.
Last month, The New York Times ran a headline that sums up the frustration of those who are victimized by trumped up criminal charges: “An arrest in the news, an exoneration in silence.”
The article focused on Travis Tremell, a Brooklyn man who was accused of killing a 52-year-old man named Early Williams in a botched 2006 armed robbery. Four months after his arrest, the charges were dismissed. Prosecutors admitted that Tremell had a solid alibi.
Yet on Google, Tremell remains a killer. Or at least he did until the Times’ “Crime Scene” correspondent, Michael Wilson, published the above-described article on October 19. The story leapfrogged straight to the top of the search results — which formerly were dominated by headlines such as “Man Charged in Killing After Brooklyn Robbery.”
Tremell was one of the lucky ones: Thanks to a random meeting with a Times photographer, a prominent columnist ended up publishing an article setting the record straight. But in the vast majority of cases, that never happens. Unless you’re someone on the scale of Lord McAlpine — the retired British politician falsely accused of pedophilic crimes in recent weeks — there’s no systematic way to clear one’s name on the Internet, or even in the same mass media outlets that originally aired the accusations against you.
Try getting a job when the first Google hit that lands on your name tells the world you’re a criminal — even if you’re not. It’s kafkaesque.
“Why was an article about [Tremell's] exoneration never written [before Oct. 19]?” Wilson asks. “Pick a reason. There is no indication it was announced by the prosecution or the police, and neither Mr. Tremell nor his family or lawyer called reporters with the news. The homicide was not the sort of high-profile case that led newspapers to routinely update its status. It went unnoticed.”
This is a problem I’ve been thinking about since June, when I published a column detailing the experiences of those falsely accused of sex crimes. As I noted at the time, “police have a vested interest in making arrests, laying charges, and putting out press releases — even in weak cases that just ruin lives and clog up the courts.”
We lazy journalists often act as unwitting collaborators in this cruel drama. In our reporting, we will cite police accusations when an alleged criminal is arrested — and then ignore the story thereafter, even when the original accusations are shown to be bogus.
A fellow I know who was falsely accused of underage sex crimes has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to scrub lies about him from the internet. But it’s insanely difficult: One Canadian newspaper he contacted refused to take down its original story about his arrest — which still pops up in the first few Google hits on his name — because it was nominally based on a (completely discredited) police press release, and so does not constitute libel.
And then there are the American rumor- and comment-based aggregators, such as Topix.com, which don’t even pretend to engage in responsible reporting, and thrive on crowdsourced character assassination. Indeed, a whole shakedown industry has evolved in this area. A site such as mugshots.com will publish public-domain mug shots of people who are arrested. And then another site, unpublishmugshots.com, will charge you $399 to get the image removed.
All told, you can easily spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers and IT specialists to help you scrub the internet of false accusations — and you still won’t get everything. The most maddening aspect of all is that there are no consequences for the police and prosecutors who casually — or sometimes recklessly — got the ball rolling in the first instance by distorting the truth, or by giving credence to clearly made up accusations.
In some cases, police continue harassing falsely accused citizens, even after the cases against them fall apart.
Consider Ray Collingham, the Toronto-area gym coach who was arrested in 2007 on the basis of emails that obviously had been fabricated by the mother of the boy whom Colligham had been accused of abusing. Collingham is fighting back with a $5-million lawsuit against the Peterborough Lakefield Police Services Board.
“Since my civil lawsuit, I have had the police directly call my landlord where I am trying to start a personal training gym, to ‘inform’ him of what I was charged with,” Collingham tells me. “They have also called other personal and martial art gyms that I network with about my charges. Some will not associate with me now because of this.”
In some cases, employers can compound the injustice of false accusations by firing or disciplining an employee before he has had his day in court.
Jean Lauzon, for instance, was an Ottawa paramedic until 2009, when he was falsely accused of sexually assaulting a mentally unbalanced patient in the course of treatment. While on bail, he wasn’t permitted to work, and received no paycheque from his employer. This trained medical professional is paying his massive legal expenses with the proceeds from a temporary job as a line cook at Cora’s Restaurant.
Even after Mr. Lauzon’s acquittal, his employer launched its own “investigation,” which is still in limbo to this day. More than three years after being falsely accused, Mr. Lauzon is still not back to work as a paramedic.
All medical professionals are at risk for this type of false accusation. “Nursing — and medicine [in general] — require close contact with patients,” one Toronto ER doctor told me, after relating the story of a colleague who’d been led away in handcuffs after being accused by an intoxicated female patient who’d been brought in at 4am. “Male nurses are expected to perform duties similar to their female colleagues that are sensitive, such as performing EKG’s (chest must be exposed), auscultating a chest (stethoscope over a breast), inserting catheters, etc. Also, the nature of the ER is that we deal with a high percentage of altered patients (due to intoxication, drugs or their medical condition). Someone that is altered is more likely to misinterpret events as abuse, or have incorrect memories of events.”
“My male nursing colleagues are afraid that they no longer can do their jobs without a female chaperone,” he adds. “I have already had a conversation with my wife, that in my career I will probably be charged with sexual assault due to the nature of my job. I have already pre-empted this by discussing potential situations with lawyers so that I may be prepared when it happens.”
This doctor is one of the lucky ones: He can talk about the issue with his wife in a candid way. Unfortunately, many false assault accusations occur in the aftermath of broken relationships, when divorce lawyers encourage women to fabricate lurid abuse claims. One father who emailed me from B.C. described how this sort of invented claim in family court actually led to criminal charges. Those charges were dismissed, but not before his career was destroyed. “The litigation on multiple fronts was financially and emotionally devastating, causing me to fall into depression and eventually declare bankruptcy,” he told me. “I am not aware of any legal remedy available to fathers falsely accused of assault or sexual abuse of their children during divorce proceedings.”
The problem is one of incentives. The system provides plenty of encouragement to police and ex-spouses to run up false claims against men — just as “zero-tolerance” workplace policies encourage bosses to fire these defendants before they’ve had their day in court. Yet when exoneration comes, suddenly everyone loses interest, and the falsely accused victim is left to rebuild his life as a fast-food worker. Sound like justice?
I can’t change the system. But I can provide a small media outlet to those men — like Travis Tremell and Ray Collingham — who have been acquitted or had their cases formally dismissed, and want the Google record to reflect the resolution of their case in a factual way. If you are in this situation, email me your details, along with corroborating documents, and I will do what I can to help.