By Jonathan Kay
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 [name withheld], a Brooklyn man who was accused of killing a 52-year-old man named [name withheld] in a botched 2006 armed robbery. Four months after his arrest, the charges were dismissed. Prosecutors admitted that [name withheld] had a solid alibi.
Yet on Google, [name withheld] 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.”
[name withheld] 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 [name withheld]'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. [name withheld] 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.