Legal expert: Keeping suspicions quiet would restrict prosecution and media

Lady Justice, a relic from the old courthouse building, on display at Harju County Court.
Lady Justice, a relic from the old courthouse building, on display at Harju County Court. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Legal scholar Jaan Ginter finds that suspicions of criminal offense becoming a matter of public record and the reputation of suspects taking a hit even if they are later acquitted is inevitable, and that keeping suspicions under wraps would be going too far in restraining the prosecution and media. That is why initial suspicions should not be used to draw far-reaching conclusions.

Businessman Parvel Pruunsild on Monday wrote to the press, saying the Internal Security Service (ISS) is suspecting him of a crime. Sometimes suspicions of criminal conduct become public following the prosecution's initiative. But the reputation of suspects takes a hit in either case.

Jaan Ginter, talking to the "Vikerhommik" morning radio show, said everyone wants others to be able to respect them, which ability automatically takes a hit when they become an official suspect. Bringing the fact to light oneself is a good way to mitigate the damage, compared to it leaking from another source, such as the prosecution.

Ginter pointed to an American study that looked at employers' attitude to incoming CVs, and it turned out that even if the person has been fully acquitted, with the judge's signature confirming that the person needs to be treated as completely innocent, their chances of making it to the interview phase fall drastically.

Some countries have experimented with not discussing criminal cases in the media until a judgment comes down. "However, this approach would greatly restrict media freedom. Information comes to light because the public needs information to function effectively," the expert said.

He added that the prosecution cannot be required to only bring cases that result in a conviction either. "While the goal is high and noble, we cannot demand the prosecution not to pursue cases that could culminate in an acquittal. This would be restricting the prosecution too much," Ginter suggested.

Even though there is no way to completely solve this problem, one way to make sure innocent people's reputation and dignity remain intact would be to explain to the public that suspicions are just that and should not serve as basis for strong conclusions.

"Unfortunately, if we only read the headlines, and people tend to have short attention spans these days, headlines tend to omit the presumption of innocence. Headlines often apportion blame, without warning readers that these are merely suspicions," the legal scholar said but added that media coverage has improved slightly.

Ginter also recalled the Estonian proverb, where there's smoke, there's fire. This means that while plenty of criminal cases have ended in acquittals, a lot of people still believe the person was guilty of what they were charged with.

The Estonian legal system includes a compensation system for those who have been detained during pretrial proceedings. Ginter said that it is a matter of debate whether it is sufficient, and that it is clearly insufficient for some, as people's levels of income can be very different. "Luckily, people are not detained in corruption cases, while we do not have a good system of compensation for damage to reputation," he said.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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