Monday, July 2, 2012

Person of Interest - Not the TV Show

Recently I was bemoaning the cancellation of the TV show Harry’s Law. I was a bit upset over the reason the show was cancelled but more because I liked it. It was a lawyer/courtroom drama that addressed issues not quite as cut and dry as “did he do it?”

One episode was about the term “person of interest”. The basic story line was a person had been labeled a “person of interest” by police, although he wasn’t a serious suspect or even under ongoing investigation. However, since the case remained open, his “person of interest” designation remained and was impacting his life, his job, his family, etc.
No, not these guys.

So what is a “person of interest”? We’ve all heard the term. It’s sort of like a suspect, right?

Not really. Unlike “suspect” and “material witness”, “person of interest” has no legal definition.  Legal definition.  Here are the definitions and explanations I found online:

…someone law enforcement authorities would like to speak with or investigate further in connection with a crime. It may be used, rather than calling the person a suspect, when they don't want their prime suspect to know they're watching him closely []

Someone who isn't a suspect in a crime, but just in consideration.  alternate definition: This is the libel-proof way of really saying "we think this guy is a suspect but we don't yet have probable cause and we want to talk to him and hope he's stupid enough to confess and make our case." []

… a phrase used by law enforcement when announcing the name of someone involved in a criminal investigation who has not been arrested or formally accused of a crime…  It is often used as a euphemism for “suspect”… []

Whoa. So this term that has no legal meaning, and by definition means someone who is not a suspect, is generally accepted to mean a “suspect who just hasn’t been officially named as a suspect…yet.”


In the 1996 bombing at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, security guard Richard Jewell was labeled a "person of interest," sparking a media frenzy despite a lack of evidence of his involvement. Jewell was tried in the media  for three months before being cleared. He was never charaged or even declared a "suspect". He was only a "person of interest".   Once exonerated, Jewell brought a number successful libel suits against media organizations whom he accused of ruining his reputation.

Dr. Steven J. Hatfill,  a "person of interest" in the 2001 anthrax attacks case, was hounded by the FBI and the media for six years without being called a "suspect" or having legal proceedings brought against him.   Dr. Hatfill also won several lawsuits subsequent to his being cleared but his professional reputation and employment prospects were ruined. 

Listen to the news this week. Listen for the words "person of interest".  How are they used?  What impressions are being given?  Do you find this a little scary?

(Um...and do you also see a good plot device?)

Please share your thoughts.

My apologies on the late posting today.  We had some severe windstorms roll through Ohio the last few days and I'm the volunteer coordinator for a local disaster response team.  Been busy rallying the troops.

Trivia Question of the Day:

What problem did Leonardo da Vinci, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and General George Patton have in common?

The answer will be in Wednesday's blog.


Carol Kilgore said...

I heard about all your storms. Glad you're OK. I've used "person of interest" in a story before. I love the TV show of that name :)

Jemi Fraser said...

That's fascinating! So many interesting ways to use that phrase in a book. I feel sorry for the innocent who are labelled with it though!

Hope you continue to stay safe!

Wild guess: learning disabilities/ difficulty reading as a child? (I know that's true of Einstein...)

Stacy McKitrick said...

I wonder how many "persons of interest" were actually charged & convicted, though. If the odds go that way, then the media reaction would make sense.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

I am glad you are all right from those storms. Whoa. To be a person of interest can really ruin your life ... especially if you cannot legally refute the law's suspicions in a court!

Maria Zannini said...

Glad your weather settled down.

Hope you get some down-time soon. You've been burning the candle at both ends, madam. :)

Cate Masters said...

Very interesting. I knew it could be used as an informal label as suspect, but I thought it also referred to someone police were simply talking to in order to gather facts. Hmm. Yes, the implications are scary!
It's been crazy weather throughout the Northeast. We dodged a big one with that storm.

LD Masterson said...

Carol - Thanks. I love the TV show, too. But even the premise of that show is a little scary. Big brother and all that.

LD Masterson said...

Jemi - I felt a little guiltly reading about people who have had their lives ruined and this little voice is saying, "you could use this in a plot".

I'm not giving away the trivia answr. You'll have to check back on Wednesday.

LD Masterson said...

Stacy - Good poit. I didn't come across any stats on that.

LD Masterson said...

Roland - That's the danger of it. Because there's no legal definition, there's no due process.

LD Masterson said...

Maria - Oh Lord, I agree.

LD Masterson said...

Cate - Hope you stay storm free.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Glad you weren't hit hard in the storms.
Interesting about the 'person of interest' definition. And scary.
Is the answer those men were all color blind?

Anonymous said...

Fascinating post and I will definitely Tweet it.

I know a Einstein and da Vinci were dyslexic, so that's what I'll say.

Tara Tyler said...

someone should alert the media!

Linda G. said...

Ugh. We were visited by the "derecho" too. My in-laws still don't have power. It sucks. :(

I think all those famous men were dyslexic.

LD Masterson said...

Alex - Thanks. We just lost some branches and the back gutters off the house. Annoying but not serious.

I'm not going the trivia answer until Wednesday but...nope, not color blind.

LD Masterson said...

Stphen - Thanks. Always nice to be Tweeted.

Aw, you guys are trying to get me to give it away. Got to check back on Wednesday for the answer.

LD Masterson said...

Tara - I think we have way too much media alerting. :-)

LD Masterson said...

Linda G. - Hope your in-laws get their power back soon. It does indeed suck.

Ah, another vote for dyslexic. Stop by tomorrow and see if you're right.