By Leigh Jones
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Maybe the French were right. When former IMF chief Dominique Strauss Kahn, then a leading presidential contender, was paraded in front of media mobs handcuffed and unshaven after his arrest in May, French politicians and commentators were outraged, slamming the "perp walk" as sensationalist and unfair.
Some Americans defended the practice of displaying criminal suspects handcuffed before cameras as part of the U.S. system of justice, but now that doubts have been raised about the hotel maid accusing Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault, critics are asking whether the practice should be ended.
"I hope it is," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "They are thinly veiled attempts to poison the atmosphere and begin the trial in the press."
The "perp walk" -- "perp" short for perpetrator -- is virtually unseen in Western Europe.
In France, the presumption of innocence bars the media from showing defendants in handcuffs before they are convicted.
In Britain, suspects largely are kept from public view and are transported in vans with blacked out windows.
By contrast, in some Latin American countries, officials force suspects to confess in front of cameras. In Thailand, people charged with a crime sometimes are forced to re-enact their supposed deeds in front of onlookers or appear before the items they are charged with stealing.
Critics of perp walks argue that they are more commonly conducted with poor minority suspects who will depend on a public defender than they are with wealthy elite like Strauss-Kahn.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is now taking a different stance on perp walks than he did in May when Strauss-Kahn was arrested. "I think it is humiliating, but if you don't want to do the perp walk, don't do the crime," Bloomberg said at the time.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Bloomberg called the practice "outrageous," adding, "We vilify (defendants) for the benefit of theater, for the circus." Bloomberg he said that he had "no say" in the police department's use of them.
Officially, neither the mayor nor the district attorney is responsible for approving or conducting perp walks. They come under the purview of the New York Police Department, since allowing prosecutors to handle them could raise ethical issues of prejudicing a trial.
Bloomberg's office did not respond to requests asking whether he would push for a change in the practice. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's office did not respond to requests for comment.
Former federal prosecutor Joel Cohen said the Strauss-Kahn case presents a strong argument for doing away with perp walks, but he's skeptical of changes happening any time soon.
"It'll be yesterday's news," said Cohen, now a white-collar criminal attorney at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan in New York. "The only reason why anybody is really bothered is because the French said what a horrible thing it is."
Investigators initially believed the story of the hotel maid who charged that Strauss-Kahn pounced on her in his luxury suite and forced her to perform oral sex, but have since raised doubt about her credibility, citing a series of lies. [ID:nN1E7650UN]
Though criminal charges against Strauss-Kahn remain in effect, the weakening of the case against him shows how perp walks can backfire.
The image of a sweaty and disheveled Strauss-Kahn being escorted by detectives coming out of the police Special Victims Unit angered his French supporters.
For Derek Champagne, president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, perp walks serve to help draw out witnesses who might not recognize the defendant otherwise and serve the public's right to know by providing images of the accused.
The justifications for holding perp walks are "baloney" and "there's actually no legitimate purpose," said Lieberman, the civil libertarian.
Cohen, the former prosecutor turned defense lawyer, agreed. The perp walk, he said, "allows the DA to slap themselves on the back with an important arrest."
(Additional reporting by Joan Gralla; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Sandra Maler)