Back To Top

Should criminal suspects be named?

With many of those arrested remaining anonymous ...
Should criminal suspects be named?

A balance of rights

Unlike in jurisdictions such as the U.S., South Korean law and media convention in many cases protect the identities of criminal suspects. In accordance with the criminal code and Korean National Police Agency guidelines, it is typical for a suspect’s face to be covered and for only their surname to be used when they appear in the media. Revealing a suspects’ identity, supporters of the right to anonymity argue, undermines the principle of being innocent until proven guilty.

The convention was broken in 2009, however, when serial killer Kang Ho-soon’s face was revealed by the media, citing the people’s right to know and setting off a debate over how to balance the rights of suspects and the general public. That same year the Korea News Editors’ Association revised its ethics guidelines to allow greater consideration for “public interest” when it comes to photographing those accused of serious crimes. An amendment put forward by the GNP was passed the following year allowing a suspect’s name, age and face to be disclosed if the police have obtained a confession or compelling evidence of guilt and the crime is sufficiently serious. But while the legal grounds for identifying suspects now exists, the practice remains relatively rare.
A criminal suspect is escourted by police. (Yonhap News)
A criminal suspect is escourted by police. (Yonhap News)

Yes: The people have the right to know

Whenever a particularly vicious murder occurs in our society, a debate occurs online over whether or not the murder suspect’s personal information, including name and photo, should be released to the public. Though it is a controversial issue with many complications such as the presumption of innocence, I am in favor of releasing such information to the public, albeit limited to cases that have become a general public issue and involve crimes of severe violence and atrocity.

First of all, such measures fall within the people’s right to know. These measures could go a long way in preventing further crimes. Obviously, it decreases the likelihood of further crimes being committed by murderers as regular citizens become familiar with the faces of such criminals.

It goes without saying that if criminals are aware that their face has been released to the general public, they will be much more reluctant to try to commit another crime.

In addition, releasing pictures of suspects could have a deterrence effect as potential criminals know that they are much more likely to get caught. All in all, it will generally work toward decreasing the possibility of such vicious crimes.

More specifically, studies have shown that people with a criminal record, especially for crimes such as murder, armed robbery and rape, are likely to commit such crimes again ― there is about a 50 percent chance.

According to a study by the Korean Police Department, about 50 percent of the people arrested in 2008 had a criminal record. Considering this fact, it is reasonable to release the personal information of murder suspects in order to decrease crimes.

The main argument that people raise against this policy is that it violates the basic human rights of these criminals. However, we must remember that such rights are not absolute. Such rights, while important, can and should be limited if they clash with other fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression.

Another big con argument often raised is that under the principle of the presumption of innocence, suspects should not be treated like criminals. However, the true purpose of this principle is to reinforce and increase the duty of the governmental authority to prove the guilt of the person accused. Its purpose is not to treat the accused in exactly the same way as a regular citizen. Though this is a fine line and must not be abused, in cases of extremely violent and dangerous suspects, a slightly different attitude must be taken and the information released.

Considering that this policy is limited to murder suspects of an extremely serious nature, it seems clear that the people’s right to know and be informed outweighs the potential violation of the human rights of the suspects. In such cases, the human rights aspect is somewhat outweighed by the benefits that the society in general reaps by ignoring it.

In light of the recent sudden increase in violent and atrocious crimes committed in Korean society, it is most definitely a good idea to release the information and photos of such people who are suspected to be dangerous. 
Lee Jae-kyo
Lee Jae-kyo

By Lee Jae-kyo

Lee Jae-kyo is an attorney at S.J.D. ― Ed.

No: It means guilt in court of public opinion

My father once told me, the most valuable assets a person can have are his reputation and education. These are the competing interests at stake in the debate over whether a person’s good name and image should be publicized in connection with a mere arrest before a conviction is made, all for the sake of informing the public.

Government transparency is important in a democracy. Public access to government records allows us to monitor our government and ensure accountability. Accountability ensures our rights are protected so citizens don’t mysteriously disappear into a black hole at the hands of a biased judge or corrupt officer. Unfortunately this protection is a double edged sword that can be used to punish the accused by publicly shaming him before a conviction is reached.

The challenge we face is to balance our right to information with our right to privacy.

In the information age, protecting privacy has become a special challenge with severe and lasting consequences if we fail. As Warren Buffet likes to say, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” Make that five seconds at today’s Internet speeds. In the mind of the public an accusation may be as good as a conviction, particularly with no response from the accused (defendants are typically instructed by their attorneys not to talk about their case).

The media may run the story repeatedly like a hypnotic infomercial or soap opera. Many will think they must have done something wrong regardless of the outcome of the case: “Where there is smoke, there is fire.” This unbalanced view may be reinforced where accusations are often front page news while the acquittals may not even make the paper.

So, why should we care about the privacy or reputation of the accused? We should care because it is really about protecting our own rights and holding society to a standard before we punish a person for an alleged wrong. The publication of names in connection with criminal activity in today’s media can amount to a lifetime sentence in the court of public opinion or capital punishment of a person’s reputation.

Some in this debate would dismiss our privacy rights by reminding us our rights are not absolute. From my perspective, it is not so much that one right should cancel another out when they intersect, rather, they should be carefully balanced, and curbed as little as possible to make room for one another. I believe we need more dialogue on how to best balance privacy interests rather than lose them in our hunt to catch and shame a predator in today’s information age.

Do we believe that a person should not be punished until proven guilty? Do we believe it is better to protect the potentially innocent from public humiliation and prejudice even if that means our laws will incidentally afford the guilty these same protections? Or do we believe it is better to sacrifice the reputation of some innocent people in order to inflict our immediate social revenge on those who might be guilty?

Some argue publication could help prevent crime. Even if the publication of identities were delayed until the judgment stage in a case, the public might receive a better balance of information on the accused that would minimize the prejudicial effect a naked accusation has over time, and yet still shame those found guilty and still have the same chilling effect on would be criminals. Courts in the U.S. have held that prejudicial pre trial publicity can jeopardize a defendant’s right to a fair trial and have changed the trial venue to a location where the publicity was unlikely to have prejudiced the jury. But South Korea is only slightly larger than the state of Indiana. The venue options are significantly limited, and the publicity is more likely to impact the entire nation. Prejudicial publicity before the trial may deny a defendant due process. This has potential danger not just to the innocently accused but to the public if such prejudice later causes a court on appeal to overturn a conviction of a truly guilty criminal for lack of due process.

We must be honest. Is the release of names and faces at this early juncture in the criminal justice process really to educate the public about a dangerous criminal on the loose so we can prevent future crime, or is it to entertain the public, gratify curiosity, and sell a story?

Perhaps we might find the right balance by applying the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

After all this is not about what we wish we could do to others ― it is about what we would have others do to us if we were in their shoes.

How soon do you really need that name or photo of the accused? Can it wait or are we willing to jeopardize the future of a potentially innocent person to satisfy public curiosity?
Colleen Reid
Colleen Reid

By Colleen Reid

Colleen Reid is a professor of law at Hanyang University. ― Ed.
Korea Herald Youtube