Words have power. If you need convincing, just look at the furor that has erupted in the past year over so-called fake news. The proliferation of bogus information initiated through social media sites and picked up by mainstream media has everyone in California and elsewhere up in arms – except those who seem to foster such stories. In some cases, those in positions of power try to put a luster of legitimacy on blatantly falsehoods, calling them alternative facts.
In criminal law, the power of words can be seen in what happens to individuals facing charges, from the lowest of misdemeanors to the most serious of sex crime allegations. All too often, these people begin to feel the negative repercussions of being accused of a crime even before they are officially arraigned. Indeed, sometimes all it takes is for police to call you a "person of interest."
As a matter of history, the person-of-interest term hasn't been around that long. According to The New York Times, it started being used in the 1960s, when law enforcement began using it in connection with probes into Vietnam War and civil rights protesters. Many credit late Attorney General John Ashcroft with bringing the term into the mainstream in 2002 during the investigation into a national anthrax scare. Police never charged the man they thrust into the limelight as a POI. Eventually he received a multi-million-dollar settlement on a claim of defamation.
Something similar is happening in the Jacob Wetterling case. A man who lived across the street from where the 11-year-old Minnesota boy was last seen in October 1989 had been questioned at the time, but nothing more. Then, in 2003, he became a person of interest based on some sketchy information.
It wasn't until 2015, when another man confessed to the abduction and slaying of Jacob, that police formally cleared the music teacher as a person of interest. By then he had suffered financial and reputational damage. He's now suing; alleging unjust police treatment, including what he says was efforts by police to get him to confess to the crime.
It's clear you don't have to be charged to need skilled legal counsel.