Photo | Daniel Anderson
As 62-year-old Daniel Huff was escorted to jail by Mobile County sheriff’s deputies, he calmly told local media he’d shot his son in the face earlier that day during an argument.
“I didn’t mean to shoot him,” Huff said when pressed by reporters. “I’ve got double vision. If I look at you, I see two of you — one there and one there where she’s standing. It was so fast I didn’t … I was at an angle … I messed up.”
Huff asked one reporter: “If you shot your son, wouldn’t you want to shoot yourself right now?”
His son, who told Mobile County Sheriff’s Office deputies his father shot him accidentally, survived the incident and Huff was ultimately charged with domestic violence. There’s no way to know whether prosecutors would have used Huff’s statements to the press against him — he died before his case was resolved.
More than 17,000 people were arrested in Mobile County in 2016, and Huff was one of fewer than 40 who local police forced to face the media through a “perp walk.”
A perp walk is a staged event set up by law enforcement where a suspected “perpetrator” is “walked” in front of a crowd of reporters before being transported to jail. They typically occur after a suspect is apprehended and questioned by police, but before they’ve been transferred to jail for booking or had a hearing in front of a judge.
When an email announcing a perp walk hits a reporter’s inbox, he or she has about 30 minutes to get into position at police headquarters and get their equipment ready. But because media coverage is the point of a perp walk, police will often wait for straggling reporters.
In today’s media market, almost every perp walk in Mobile County (and a few in Baldwin County) is streamed live on Facebook regardless of the alleged offense, and at least a few clips from these events make it into the nightly news cycles on local television stations.
At a perp walk, reporters ask questions of suspects directly and often do so with microphones and cameras just a few inches from suspects’ faces. A suspect can respond to the questions however they choose, though the vast majority remain silent on their way to the patrol car.
Who gets perp-walked?
While it happened to be the agency that arrested Huff in 2016, it’s actually somewhat uncommon for the MCSO to set up a perp walk for local media. In fact, of the 38 perp walks Lagniappe was notified of in 2016, only two to three were exclusively orchestrated by MCSO.
Spokeswoman Lori Myles said MCSO typically only does perp walks for “high-profile cases.”
For instance, when Derrick Dearman was arrested and charged with the murder of five adults and an unborn child in Citronelle in 2016, MCSO called for a perp walk. They did the same when double homicide suspect Stephen Lavern Weaver was apprehended the same year.
“An arrest of a murder suspect would be a good perp walk because communities want to know that law enforcement has taken a murder suspect off their streets,” Myles said. “There are other times where we may do a perp walk at the request of a media station.”
Though she didn’t name any specifically, Myles said some news stations in the Mobile market will sometimes call for a perp walk if they’ve aired a story that generated information about an unsolved crime and that story ends up providing MCSO with information leading to an arrest.
“It kind of gives the station a kudos,” she added.
Since 2016, there have been around 110 of these perp walks in Mobile, which comes out to a little more than 3.6 every month, but the frequency waxes and wanes over time. Some months there weren’t any at all, but in others, there were multiple perp walks in a single day.
What hasn’t changed is that the lion’s share of local perp walks are organized by the Mobile Police Department. In 2016, MPD set up roughly 34 of these events for alleged criminals. Last year, that increased to 45.
If current trends continue, 2018 could be a banner year for the perp walk in Mobile. Halfway through the calendar year, there have been 27 perp walks as of last week — most of them in the past three months as the city has wrestled with a perception that crime is on the rise.
During his “state of the city” address in early May, Mayor Sandy Stimpson mentioned crime as one of the challenges that still face Mobile. That same month, the number of perp walks jumped from just eight over five months to nine in May alone. There were also nine MPD perp walks in June and there has been one so far in July.
Despite the perception, MPD Chief Lawrence Battiste said crime “appears to be trending down in most areas” of Mobile this year. He said citizens often hear about crimes in the media or on social media but often don’t hear about the progress his officers are making to stop it.
According to Battiste, MPD does a number of things to communicate that progress to citizens, such as having precinct commanders share crime data with their respective communities, including the number of crimes that occur and how many cases are cleared by a suspect’s arrest.
Another tool to get that message out, Battiste said, is the perp walk.
“If we don’t tell that story, all people know is that crime is occurring, and nobody ever knows that we’re actually having some really good success in our ability to solve crimes,” he said. “The perp walk is another mechanism to tell that story, but usually those deal with the most violent crimes in our community or people who have gone on crime sprees.”
While perp walks have been around since the days of famed mobsters such as Alvin Karpis and Henry Campbell, the practice isn’t as common today. None of Alabama’s other major cities — Montgomery, Birmingham or Huntsville — host staged perp walks for the media in their respective markets.
While the Prichard Police Department does, authorities in Mobile County’s third largest city do not. When asked, Detective Collette Moore of the Saraland Police Department said: “as far as I know, we have never done, nor will do, a perp walk.”
It’s also not a practice of most federal law enforcement agencies. Tommy Loftis, a public affairs specialist with the Mobile branch of the FBI, said the local agency doesn’t even release mugshots of suspects unless it furthers a specific investigation, and that follows a “strict procedure.”
When asked how the process works in Mobile, Battiste said MPD detectives or officers usually request a perp walk when a particular suspect is apprehended, but as chief, it’s ultimately his decision to make. He said it comes down to what will make the community feel safer.
When a heinous crime occurs, Battiste said it’s important to let the community know a suspect has been apprehended, especially if there’s a concern that additional crimes could follow.
“It kind of brings some immediate relief to the community — once you know that a suspect is in custody, people can sleep a little bit easier,” Battiste added. “It just brings some sense of satisfaction and relief to the community when we do these perp walks.”
Based on Lagniappe’s review of MPD press releases over the past two years, with a few exceptions, most suspects put through a perp walk have been accused of crimes that include murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, assault, burglary, carjacking and kidnapping.
However, the definition of what constitutes a perp walk-worthy offense does seem to have shifted a bit. Over the past two years, they have increased to include suspects accused of less-severe crimes, like nonfatal shootings or discharging a firearm at an event where no one was injured.
Of the 27 perp walks called in 2018, only 10 of the suspects have been charged with murder.
Two nonviolent criminals to go through a perp walk in recent years were Jalicia Crawley and Tiffany Pettaway. The women were charged with possession of a forged instrument in 2016 for passing counterfeit $100 bills at the local Christmas Nights of Lights event.
The crime wasn’t “heinous” nor part of a crime spree, but Crawley and Pettaway were taken through the media in a perp walk on Jan. 7, 2016 — both still in nursing scrubs from work. Neither answered questions about their alleged crime.
What made their perp walk newsworthy happened the following day when police say Crawley jumped from the Africatown Bridge. She did not survive, and though there were reports of a woman jumping off the bridge that day, Crawley’s body wasn’t found until March 23.
A member of Crawley’s family and Pettaway declined to comment for this report. When asked, MPD did not provide an explanation of why their case merited a perp walk, though their alleged crime had been previously reported on in the local media before they were identified as suspects.
While perp walks may be beneficial for the media, police and even the public, concerns have been raised by attorneys and constitutional groups about how these staged public events impact the accused suspects who are actually being “walked.”
“The perp walk is fraught with all sorts of problems, including some that rise to an unconstitutional level,” defense attorney Donald Briskman said. “They’re entirely unnecessary and designed to prejudice prospective jurors as to guilt or innocence. They’re in chains and a jail jumpsuit — what other conclusion does the average person draw?”
According to Briskman, the image of a handcuffed defendant being hauled into a police car makes an impression on the general public, some of whom could conceivably wind up on a local jury deciding that same defendant’s guilt or innocence at trial.
Briskman, a criminal defense lawyer, has represented clients who’ve been forced to go through a perp walk. However, it’s not just defense attorneys who share his concerns about a law enforcement tactic that’s become routine in Mobile.
Portia Allen-Kyle, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Alabama, told Lagniappe that if criminal defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty, their judgment shouldn’t come before a conviction or from “the court of public opinion.”
“The Supreme Court has already recognized the incurable effect of shackling somebody who is on trial in front of jury. That’s settled law,” she said. “We would be concerned that these perp walks bias the jury pool, especially because Mobile isn’t New York City. It’s a lot smaller and the likelihood someone has heard about an event or seen it on TV is much higher.”
While jury prejudice stemming from a perp walk is a concern and has caused defendants to win a change of venue in the past, it’s not the biggest issue for the the ACLU. Courts in the U.S. have found perp walks to be unconstitutional when they don’t serve a law enforcement purpose.
After a challenge from a defendant arrested in New York City in 1999, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals found that “a staged perp walk exacerbates the seizure of the arrestee unreasonably and therefore violates the Fourth Amendment.”
In other words, crime is public information and arresting and transporting accused criminals to jail is part of what police do. So, if the media happens to get footage of that, it’s fine. However, the legal concerns tend to come up when these events are strategically staged. Those “fictional perp walks,” Allen-Kyle said, are often “based on publicity, not increasing public safety.”
“Perp walks aren’t necessary to the actual arrest because the crime doesn’t occur where they are typically staged,” she added. “You’re already arrested and in police custody, and they’re taking you out and prancing you in front of the media, which there is no law enforcement purpose for.”
The right to remain silent
Despite the concerns raised by the ACLU, Battiste said MPD hasn’t had anyone locally question its perp walk practices or seen a defendant request an attorney be present for one since he’s been with the department. He did say he understands some of those concerns, though.
“It’s cyclical. Five or 10 years ago, when I was the chief in Prichard, I can remember getting some pushback about perp walks, but I haven’t seen a lot related to the perp walks we’ve done in Mobile,” he said. “We try to do them in good taste, and when we’ve collected evidence we believe compels the district attorney’s office or a court to give us an arrest warrant, we’re comfortable saying we believe this person is guilty of committing this crime.”
For Briskman and other defense attorneys, there’s an additional concern that statements made to the press during a perp walk could be used against suspects. In fact, one of his recent clients caught reporters off guard when she used a June 7 perp walk to promote her Instagram account.
“Please follow me on Instagram, Famouzdb, to understand the real reasons why this is going on,” 26-year-old Raven Yates told reporters. “Anybody that knows me knows I am a woman of stature and prestige. Yes I look a mess, but I am blessed and highly favored.”
Yates got a few laughs from reporters even as she was being arrested for allegedly assaulting a repo driver with a box cutter during a robbery. However, Briskman said he’s seen things go much worse for defendants going through perp walks locally.
“I’ve seen too many where the media will shout questions to someone while they don’t have a lawyer and haven’t been advised by one at all,” he said. “If the accused blurts something out in response to a question, it’s on video. If it’s damaging, it is coming into trial.”
In the recent past, some suspects have made statements that could theoretically be used against them. When reporters asked Dearman why he killed six people, he said: “drugs were making me think things that’s not really happening.” He went on to plead not guilty to all charges.
As part of this report, Lagniappe reached out to news directors at all three of Mobile’s local TV stations seeking input about their coverage of perp walks. Ultimately, WALA Fox 10 was the only station that sent any kind of response.
“We get information from the police, but perp walks give us the opportunity to ask the accused for their side of the story,” Fox 10 News Director Scott Flannigan said. “[A perp walk] may be the only access a reporter has to the accused.”
While a few defendants have proclaimed innocence during local perp walks, the line of questioning from reporters is typically more accusatory than inquisitive. In some cases, objectivity seems to be thrown out the window altogether.
During a perp walk of murder suspect Lacedrick Lindsey on May 22, one reporter asked, “Did you know who you were shooting? Did you mean to fire your weapon?” On June 28, during the perp walk of Jaden Little, the 17-year-old murder suspect was asked, “Why did you shoot him?” on a live stream watched by thousands.
When 19-year-old accused murderer Brandon Sims faced the media on May 5, reporters asked things like: “Did you know the man you shot? Did you know that you killed him when you shot him? Why were you firing your weapon?” None of those suspects responded to any questions.
When asked about that type of questioning, Battiste said most suspects who go through an MPD perp walk wind up entering guilty pleas, though he did say he personally remembers times within the last year when a perp has confessed to a crime or given up information about their case while being questioned by reporters at a perp walk.
While that may happen on occasion, Battiste said accused suspects aren’t required to speak to the media and that putting someone through a perp walk isn’t a strategic move for MPD.
“It’s not our plan to rattle anybody. Our plan when we do perp walks is to make sure that we have notified the public that we’ve taken somebody into custody,” he added. “It’s never our plan to utilize the media to get a confession on tape. If it happens, it happens, but our goal is to bring some semblance of relief to the community.”
Correction: The printed version of this story states that only nine suspects who’ve undergone perp walks in 2018 were charged with murder. In fact, 10 of those suspects are facing murder charges.
Updated at 12:31 p.m., July 11, to include comments from Fox 10 News Director Scott Flannigan.