The examined case studies revealed that disrespect of the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty is extremely common. All the more so that is a direct violation of the presumption of innocence for any media channel or public authority to make statements implying the guilt of an accused or suspected person ahead of court judgement. Public sentiments and public hunger for sensation may put a huge amount of pressure on the media as well as the concerned public authorities and can lead, in turn, to the violation of the presumption of innocence. It should be noted that legal systems approach issues related to the openness of criminal investigations differently. Also, some cases require a high amount of secrecy, whereas others highlight the importance of open justice.
The Council of Europe Recommendation encourages Member States to respect the principle of the presumption of innocence as an integral part of the right to a fair trial and undertake measures to ensure that, accordingly, opinions and information relating to ongoing criminal proceedings are only communicated or disseminated through the media where this does not prejudice the presumption of innocence of the suspect or accused. At the EU level, Directive 2016/343 on the presumption of innocence obliges Member States to take the necessary measures to ensure that, for as long as a suspect or an accused person has not been proved guilty according to law, public statements made by public authorities, and judicial decisions, other than those on guilt, do not refer to that person as being guilty.
Authorities do not always comply with the principle of restraining from making reference to the guilt of suspects and accused. The case studies revealed that in many instances defendants are shown as guilty of a crime at the pre-trial stage in order to make the headlines. Furthermore, judicial and law enforcement representatives sometimes present the cases as solved long before the suspect is even brought to court in their efforts to demonstrate the progress of the investigation. In the Sotirya murder case, for example, immediately after the suspect was arrested, the Secretary General of the Ministry of the Interior was quoted saying that “we confirm that he [the suspect] is the perpetrator of this brutal murder”. Later in the same proceedings, during a media interview about the results of the DNA tests performed during the investigation, a prosecutor was quoted saying that with the DNA results and the accused person’s voluntary confession ”everything has been proven”. Similarly, in the case of the Bulgarian journalist Milen Tsvetkov’s death in a car accident, the police revealed details about the investigation in a series of interviews and the Senior Commissioner assured that “it is clear to us who the perpetrator of this act is”. According to EU Directive 2016/343, such statements are illegal and should be considered a violation of the presumption of innocence, as they reflect the opinion of a public authority despite the fact that the person has not been found guilty according to law.
Another common practice which raises concerns as to whether the presumption of innocence is properly observed is the practice of public authorities to disclose additional information collected in the course of the investigation, which portrays the suspect or accused person in a certain, often negative, way. In the Sotirya murder case, for instance, following the arrest of the suspect, the police made a public announcement in which the person was described as uneducated, unemployed and antisocial, with no friends, and in a very difficult financial situation. A reference was also made to the person’s criminal record, which showed that he was convicted in the past for a sexual crime, sentenced to imprisonment, but released because the sentence was suspended. Similar observation was made on the Gabriel Cruz case. After the suspect (Quezada) was arrested, the press published articles stating she had been a sex worker in the early 1990s. During a press conference held by the Guardia Civil (Spanish law enforcement agency), the police revelaed details about the defendant’s past and made offensive claims about the suspect. The Guardia Civil insinuated that A.J. is suspect of the crime because “she had a past in Burgos”. The story was further tackled by the media publishing claims that the suspected woman used to be a prostitute. Moreover, during the pre-trial proceedings, the Guardia Civil commanders claimed that they considered the detainee to be responsible for the murder of the minor stating that “Ana Julia Quezada was responsible for the murder of the child”, and described her as a woman with “economic ambition", "extremely cold" and "quite manipulative". Thus, the authorities contributed to the creation of a negative image of the suspect, which was conveyed to the general public. The local community initiated a petition demanding life imprisonment and collected 130,000 signatures in a single day. Another petition was launched which called for the accused woman of Dominican descent to be declared persona non grata in Spain and to be forced to return back to the Dominican Republic and serve her remaining years in prison there. This petition reached close to 190,000 signatures. The second petition had the following argument:
“Knowing that Spanish justice will fail to provide sufficient punishment and will prove to be too complacent towards this murderer, even if she were to be sentenced to 150 years in prison or life imprisonment, as she would be comfortable in any of Spain's prisons, WE REQUEST: That Ana Julia Quezada Cruz is claimed by the Department of Justice of the Dominican Republic, where she is from, and be forced to serve life imprisonment in one of the prisons of her country of origin for the alleged murder of little Gabriel Cruz Ramirez."
Thereby, subjective public statements regarding one’s culpability based on personal characteristics are able to enforce social movements requiring more severe and “extra” punishment than those provided by the penal law applicable in the country. Similar observations were made in relation to the case of the car accident in which journalist Milen Tsvetkov died. The media reiterated the claim that the defendant was using drugs. The social response was materialised by organising a petition requiring for a maximum term of punishment for “the drugged driver who killed Milen Tsvetkov”, as well as demands for legislative amendments increasing the sanction for driving under intoxication. The petition was signed by over 25,000 people. Subsequently, amendments to the Penal Code were proposed in parliament but the bill didn’t pass.
The use of inappropriate and offensive language of the police and judicial authorities referring to suspects and accused was also observed in the Kocherinovo fraud case, as the Minister of the Interior called him “a rascal” shortly after the arrest. Such statements are contributing to forming a negative image of the person and implying a perception of a “criminal” because he or she is assumed to have certain personality traits and characteristics.
Assessing the Risk of Isolation of Suspects and Accused (ARISA) is a series of projects striving to promote the rights of suspects, accused and convicted persons in the European Union.
This website was funded by the European Union’s Justice Programme (2014-2020).
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