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'Person of interest' label harms innocent, critics say

By JAMIE JONES, Times Staff Writer
Published February 16, 2004

Shortly after the bodies of Richard and Karla Van Dusen were found on a dirt driveway in Hillsborough County, detectives began searching for Justin "Jay Dogg" Sullivan, an ex-con with a lengthy criminal record.

Sullivan, 29, was standing in a Tampa convenience store buying milk when he heard about the case on the TV news. Then his picture appeared on the screen, beamed into homes across the Tampa Bay area.

Detectives wanted to question him about the murders. They did not say why, nor did they call him a suspect.

Instead, he was a "person of interest."

Sullivan has been cleared in the double homicide, but said the label has been hard to shake.

"People look at me differently now," Sullivan said in a telephone interview from a Hillsborough County jail, where he is held on probation violations. "They will always remember me as if I had something to do with the murder."

The term "person of interest" has worked its way into the national lexicon in recent years and has been used in several high-profile cases - the government's investigation into the deadly anthrax attacks, for example.

But critics worry that the term has become a crutch for law enforcement officers, allowing them to draw attention to individuals without formally accusing them.

"It has the terrible potential to cause negative inferences about people who have nothing to do with a crime," said James Acker, criminal justice professor at the University at Albany in New York.

Unlike "suspect" and "material witness," the phrase has no legal definition and is not mentioned in most criminology books, local professors say.

Law enforcement officers say the phrase is neutral: It could mean potential suspect, it could mean witness.

"It's a good term," said Sgt. Mike Puetz of the St. Petersburg Police Department. "It applies to anyone we would like to speak with further."

But to critics, it's the equivalent of a wink and a nod from officers, meaning: Don't worry, we've got our guy. It's a vanilla way to say suspect, critics argue, and has the effect of tainting a person long before officers have enough evidence for an arrest.

"It's a sloppy, irresponsible term," said Ted Gup, journalism professor at Case Western Reserve University and a former Washington Post reporter. "Once you cast a pall of suspicion on someone, you can't subsequently say, "I didn't mean anything by that.' It's like trying to get the toothpaste back into the tube."

The term certainly isn't new. It dates back at least to the 1970s, when it appeared in a New York Times article describing the government's plans to compile information on various "persons of interest."

But most agree that the term's popularity increased in 1996, after investigators and reporters named Atlanta security guard Richard Jewell as potentially responsible for the Olympic Park bombing.

He was later cleared and won at least hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements - the exact amount has not been disclosed - claiming his reputation was forever ruined.

"We call it the Richard Jewell rule," said Lt. Rod Reder, spokesman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

Critics don't buy it.

"By referring to someone as a person of interest, they're sending a signal without saying the words," said Jewell's attorney, L. Lin Wood of Atlanta. "No individual's name should be publicly discussed simply because they're being investigated. A lot of innocent people are investigated."

Wood, too, believes the term has become more popular since Jewell, with law enforcement officers trying to find a more nebulous way to publicly identify suspects.

Whatever the phraseology, connecting someone to a crime has consequences.

That has been no more clear than in the perplexing case of Steven Hatfill, a bioterror expert who has been called by the government a "person of interest" in the anthrax attacks that killed five people in 2001.

Several intriguing clues led investigators to Hatfill, and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft named him as the only "person of interest" in his investigation.

The attention has, by all accounts, ruined Hatfill's life, but he has not been charged with sending the anthrax-laced letters. Hatfill's lawyer, Thomas Connolly, has filed a lawsuit against the government, seeking damages for the impact on Hatfill's life.

"He's been shunned by his friends and treated like a virtual pariah," said Hatfill's friend and former CNN reporter, Pat Clawson.

Clawson says the term "person of interest" is partly to blame for Hatfill's situation.

"It's a nice catchy little phrase," Clawson said. "It means, "We think you're guilty of something, but we don't have any evidence, so we're going to smear your reputation in the meantime.' "

If officers don't use the term, or one like it, what are they to do? They are faced with the task of quickly locating potential suspects, as well as balancing requests from an interested public. If they have to comment about a particular individual, they'd rather use "person of interest."

"I still think putting the suspect tag on somebody is far more severe than saying person of interest," said Puetz, of the St. Petersburg police department. "To use the term suspect - that's a harsh definition."

Acker, the University at Albany professor, said the term is hard to pin down.

If used with caution, it could be acceptable, he said. Authorities have good reason to alert the public about certain aspects of their investigations, and regularly need help from the public to solve crimes.

"It could have a perfectly appropriate use," he said. "But you almost want to have a little asterisk attached to it, a disclaimer that says in no way does this term impugn a person."

In certain situations, officers say, the term offers the most accurate description of their interest in someone. But they also admit to using it strategically. For example, if they don't want their prime suspect to know they're watching him closely, they will call him a "person of interest" rather than a suspect.

And that's the problem, said Sullivan, the "person of interest" in the Van Dusen case. The terms have become blurred.

Hillsborough detectives said they had a perfectly legitimate reason to pursue Sullivan: A piece of evidence possibly linked him to the crime scene. It was necessary, they said, to quickly establish whether he was a suspect in the case.

"If you don't have the facts to call me a suspect, don't call me a person of interest," he said. "Because it's basically the same thing."

- Jamie Jones can be reached at 727 893-8455. Send e-mail to

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