Jared Lee Loughner: Suspect… or Killer?

After the shooting that killed six and wounded at least a dozen people, including Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, I blogged about the accusations that extreme political rhetoric was to blame for the shooting.

In passing I also remarked “…that news accounts are calling Loughner a ‘suspect’ in the shooting, when after the shooting people took the gun away from him and held him for the police.  What kind of Orwellian use of language calls him the suspect, rather than the gunman?”

Several commentators were critical of my remark, saying that our legal system presumes people to be innocent until proven guilty, and at this point Loughner is, in fact, just a suspect.  That’s a valid point.  Still, I will stand by my point.  Does anyone who has followed this case not think that Jared Loughner was the gunman?

The Loughner case is not an isolated incident.  Often, where there is overwhelming evidence available to the public that a person committed the crime, the person is referred to as a suspect, not the perpetrator.  As a result of cases like this, whereas at one time suspect used to refer to someone who might have committed a crime, now it carries the connotation that there is convincing evidence that the suspect is, in fact, the perpetrator.  By using the word this way, suspect has come to mean the person who committed the crime, not someone who there is some reason to think might have.

Because “suspect” no longer means what it used to, we have invented a new term, “person of interest,” to replace what suspect used to mean.  Now, if we suspect somebody may have committed a crime, we call that person a person of interest, and if the evidence plainly shows the person did commit the crime, then the person becomes the suspect.  The way the term suspect is commonly used is not the same as the old dictionary definition.

The problem is that in cases where there is not solid evidence regarding who is the perpetrator of a crime, we might still call a person of interest a suspect, and today that implies, as in the Loughner case, that we have solid evidence that the suspect is, in fact, the perpetrator.  The misuse of language works against the innocent, not in their favor.

As the term is used today, to call someone a suspect means we believe the person is the perpetrator.  But, referring back to the dictionary definition, it is easier to call someone a suspect because it gives the accuser an out.  We have created ambiguity in the language, so suspect (like many other words) no longer has a precise meaning.

If I say Loughner was the gunman and it turns out not to be true, I was wrong.  So, I’d better be careful when I call Loughner the gunman.  But if I call someone a suspect, it carries the same connotation, but because the term no longer has a precise meaning, my dictionary-based out is that I just said I suspected the person was the perpetrator.  I didn’t say I actually knew it was true.

Innocent until proven guilty?  Sure.  But the way the term is used today, calling someone a suspect implies the same thing as accusing that person of committing the crime.  When someone is referred to as a suspect, the connotation is that the suspect is the perpetrator, not that we are presuming the suspect is innocent.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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