Van der Sloot: Peruvian justice, public passion and the media’s responsibility

By Rick Vecchio
Peruvian Times Editor

Joran Van der Sloot's "perp walk" before reporters. Source: Diario Expreso

The absence of one word left a gaping hole in our story yesterday about Joran Van der Sloot’s interrogation by Peruvian police — and we weren’t alone.

The word was “allegedly,” a somewhat technical, cumbersome term.

Who really ever utters “allegedly” in everyday conversation?  That is why so many editors deplore its use in news stories. Perhaps that could explain why it was absent from much of the mainstream media’s breaking coverage of the Van der Sloot case.

But unlike other abused and misused words in the journalistic lexicon, like “amid” and “mishap,” the judicious application of “allegedly” in news stories is vital.

Dutch citizen Joran van der Sloot has “allegedly” confessed to killing 21-year-old university student Stephany Flores in his Lima hotel room last week.

Peru’s top police spokesman, Col. Abel Gamarra, “alleged” that Van der Sloot admitted to the killing Monday under questioning, The Associated Press reported. To its credit, The AP — my former employer — made the effort to find an on-the-record source, instead of being content to rely on a bevy of unattributed Peruvian news stories. The only thing missing in The AP’s Monday night scoop was that one little word.

In our post-9/11 world, where psychotic serial killers, terrorists and “evil-doers” of all stripes lurk at every turn, we have lost sight of some basic precepts of criminal justice in democratic societies.

No matter how seemingly guilty a person is of a crime, the presumption of innocence is sacrosanct. “Allegedly” is a journalistic nod to that presumption, even when all the facts in the story indicate the subject is guilty as sin.

The job of the police is to investigate and lodge criminal charges, and then those allegations must be proven by the state in an impartial court of law.

Bert De Rooij, a lawyer for Van der Sloot’s family in The Netherlands, reportedly suggested that the 22-year-old Dutchman’s alleged confession might have been coerced — hardly a novel concern.

“Joran told his mother, crying, Monday that he was interrogated under pressure and barbaric conditions,” De Rooij was quoted saying in Peruvian daily Peru.21. “He told her the police tried to force him to confess.”

CNN picked up yesterday on the growing concern in The Netherlands that mounting international pressure  on Peru to provide a slam-dunk  conviction against Van der Sloot was turning his presumed guilt into a “foregone conclusion.”

Presumed guilt has an insidious way of lowering journalistic standards. A prime example is in today’s Web edition of El Comercio, Peru’s most reputable daily newspaper. El Comercio bizarrely saw fit to quote an expert in the analysis of facial features, who determined, based on the “longitude” of Van der Sloot’s mouth, the smallness of his beady eyes and the depth of the cleft beneath his nose, that he is a “perpetrator” and “manipulator” of potential female victims.

In a democracy, the news media is entrusted to remind us that the presumption of innocence must trump the presumption of guilt in the public consciousness.

Presumed guilt dulls common sense and healthy skepticism. It raises our tolerance for some of the great injustices of our age, like water boarding and other forms of torture.

And in the case of Joran Van der Sloot, presumed guilt makes us forget the most important principle of any true criminal  justice system: If society cannot guarantee the rights of the most seemingly guilty, it inevitably will fail to protect the rights of the innocent who find themselves falsely accused.

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32 Comments

  1. Triton Moreno says:

    This is a very good article, and to the point. Political Correctness in both the news and in our everyday life is ruining any freedom of speech one has. Joran Van der Sloot is going to use every trick in the book try to get out of this legal situation. I would hope that the GOP, does not let this individual off. He has used his contacts and family influence to get away with murder once already, this time I hope will be different. I would hope that the GOP would not turn this man over to the United States for any reason, until he serves his time for the crime that he has “allegedly” confessed (I can not stand that word either) My heart goes out to the family of Stephany Flores, for their loss.

    “Joran told his mother, crying, Monday that he was interrogated under pressure and barbaric conditions,” De Rooij was quoted saying in Peruvian daily Peru.21. Really! How much more barbaric was his interrogation than the murder of a young woman at his hands? I am sickened by his implications that he has been mistreated.

  2. Many people here in the Netherlands would like to congratulate the Peruvian
    Government on it’s swift action in the capture and apprehension of Joran van der Sloot.
    Up to the present he has been able to circumvent the law with lies and tricks. Mainly, with thanks to his father’s legal manoeuvres, he succeeded to stay out of jail.
    Thanks again for keeping a dangerous psychopath of the streets.

    Teddy

  3. This is a great article. I am an American, and I appreciate your reminding us all that we need to maintain a certain amount of restraint in communication of this news. Agreed, in this case it appears easy to jump to the quick conclusion he is guilty, but we must try to remain factual, not for Van der Sloot’s sake, but the innocent person who may be falsely accused one day. Though we all agree this not that day (as he is guilty), there will come a day when someone may be accused falsely and needs the protection of being innocent until proven otherwise.

    I’d like to say too that the world generally appreciates how your country is handling the situation. Very professional, but also very firm. I only wish your country could put Van der Sloot behind bars for a longer time than 35 years.

    Cheers!

    • I too am very thankful for the Peruvian Police. I think a serial killer has been removed from the streets of many countries. Joran’s father may have helped him in Aruba (I still believe he killed Natalie) but he will receive no help in Peru. Looks like his lies and his father’s deceit have backfired on him. I’m so sad for the lose of such a beautiful young lady in Peru but I think Joran (I pronounce it, “Urine”) will have a very very tough time in a Peruvian prison than any in Aruba. I pray for the Holloway family, my son graduated the same year as Natalie, and I pray for the family of Stephany.

  4. Joe - USA citizen says:

    It’s too bad that US Atty. General Eric Holder and his so called Justice Department actually enabled Joran’s receipt of $15,000 in extortion money from the family of Natalie Holloway, money that this killer then used to travel to Peru and commit this horrific act. Had the US FBI issued a warrant for his arrest on extortion charges the moment he accepted the cash like they should have, Aruba would have held him for extradition and a dead girl would still be alive. They chose instead to wait. I hope the family of Ms. Flores finds a good lawyer and holds those responsible in the US FBI and inJustice Dept. accountable for the negligence which cost a precious young girl her life.

    • John - US Citizen says:

      Joe-
      The US government is responsible for this girls life? Really?? I don’t think so. Joran did this horrible act by himself and he would have killed again regardless of what country he was in. Your claim about our government is ridiculous.

    • Frederic Nitz says:

      The FBI could not arrest him or even issue a warrant without court approval and permission from Aruba. Those actions take time. The same with a request for extradition. Aruba is the only one that could have done anything and they chose not to.

  5. Phil Fleming says:

    I live in Alabama and am friends with a cousin of Beth Holloway’s, The Mother of Natalee Holloway.
    Joran Vander Sloot is Satan in the Flesh. He is Lucifer himself.
    The pain this little narcissistic “punk” is unbearable. He is a pathological liar and has caused misery everywhere he goes.
    We can only pray that the authorities in Peru will prosecute him to the fullest extent of The Law. Personally, I have never wished the demise of anyone but, if Joran Vander Sloot “dropped dead” today, then I would not lose a minute of sleep.
    Our sincerest prayers go to the family of Stephanie Flores, especially her father, Richard Flores.
    May God Bless You, Sir.
    Phil Fleming
    Montgomery, Alabama

    • I too have lost a love one to murder and I have cried every day for the past twenty years. I am so sorry for your life. I have always believed the old testament laws. I still want justice and I am still in pain.

  6. Truth Hurts says:

    The guy IS guilty, so why the condemnation remorse?

  7. I am a US citizen and the word allegedly is a pet peeve of mine, We all agree innocent until proven guilty in a court of law is a fundamental right but that is in a court of law. News organizations can and should be careful about what they print for fear of lawsuits but when the evidence is overwhelming why say allegedly? The newspaper has no judicial authority so they are not bound bound by the same standard. Van der Sloot is guilty and I have no problem saying that. I am also sure that Peruvian Justice will prove better than Auruban

  8. Georgia French says:

    I hope and pray Joran gets what is coming to him.
    Everyone knows he killed Natalie and now Stephany Flores..
    My heart goes out to the Flores Family as I also lost a child to homicide..
    It is too bad you all do not have the “Death Penalty “in your country!!!!!

    Please
    Do not let this man get away with murder again!!!

  9. Phil Fleming says:

    I bet you ten bucks that “punk” will be “shanked” in prison within a year.

    They’re going to stick him in there with the likes of “The Shining Path”: Maoist Guerillas who will “slit your throat” for ten bucks.

    Good Riddance when that happens and I’ll celebrate. Just throw that “punk” out with the garbage.

    • I agree with you Phil. Peruvian prison is no joke. He will get killed no doubt.
      I also read somewhere the girl he killed, her daddy ran for president of Peru, or something like that. If he has any political power then forsure Joran will die very soon in prison. I just hope they get the whereabouts of Natalie’s body before this happens.

  10. Blue Bird USA says:

    Thanks god this time he can’t get off the hook. My sympathy goes to the families of the victims. Joran, the mama boy, was spoiled and transformed in a monster by his family, and Dutch Judiciary system and Government. He thinks that is very smart, and is in full disregard for others. For the disappearances of Natalee, the Dutch government covered up the Joran’s crime, and they are as guilty as him. The Peruvians are Kind and Nice people, but they won’t tolerate this macabre crime. This is something that they can’t swallow.

    • I’m Dutch, but I don’t believe the Dutch government had anything to do with covering up Joran’s crime, BUT I do believe that the judicial system here is way too soft in punishing crime offenders. Many like me applaud the capture of Joran in Peru and hope he stays in prison for a very loooong time. Joran has had (and still has) lots of media coverage here in Holland and I’m sick of looking at that arrogant face spinning and weaving all those lies. I sure the judge in Peru won’t fall for his bullsh*t and I hope he gives him a life sentence for his crimes. Like they say “what goes around, comes around”!!

  11. Aruba has done a total injustice to the USA and also Peru for allowing this killer to walk free just because of who his father was. I hope that these families find peace in these horrific events. May God bless both the Hollaway/Twitty family and also the Flores family. Shame on the Aruban government.

  12. Joran even has his own mother convinced that he is innocent!!! What a tragedy! I know from experience that some parents do have morals and even if your child does do wrong, you are not helping anyone, especially the child by defending them. They should pay for their actions….especially something as horrific as these crimes. The mother is just as guilty if she knew ANYTHING about Natalie Holloway!!!

  13. He is trying to get off on something technical this time. And if his mother or the Dutch government actually believe him this time she/they are just adding to the killing of these girls. They are sending him into the prison in a “secure” area, how fair is that. He should be thrown into the general population and IF he makes it to trial then it should be a fair one. I hope that Stephany’s father or brothers get ahold of him first.

  14. I agree with the concepts of caution as expressed by this article. Many times sensational cases have a way of spinning out of control and public sentiments and hysteria seem to increase with the intertia such a case brings to a locality. As more news organizations arrive a feeding frenzy attaches for those looking for any angle, any scintilla, any rumor for their next deadline to report.

    There are several such cases that seem to take on such notoriety from time to time: Baron von Bullow, Jon Bennet Ramsey, Matta Hari, The Rosenberg Trials, The Profumo Affair, The Pentagon Papers, the Hiss Case, the Salem Witch Trials, The Inquisition just to name a few. I am certain one can think of a few more or government misdeeds that seem to occur from time to time.

    It does not seem to matter much whether one follows the Napoleonic Code, The Common Law Code, Sharia Law or some other means to discern the truth of matters before a tribunal. That is why we have tribunals, a Code of Law, a System of Justice in some form or another, since ancient times. That is how humans should settle their disputes. One should always allow that process to take its course, rather than allow “Spin Doctors”or a frenzied public to lynch a person in the public forum. Most countries do not allow for hanging a person from the limb of the nearest tree, with a decision made by a mob based on rumors or mere accusations.

    I am certain that the Judicial Authorities, and Police Authorities with whom the responsibilities it rests in Peru will see it it that some form of Due Process of the Law is followed in this matter. And until a final adjudication is made, we should give any Suspect or Defendant that presumption of innocence in law and in fact. Whatever statements or physical evidence there may be, will be given in a proper and due course reflections through the Judicial Process.

    We need to be patient and respect that system other wise anarchy rules.

    • Frederic Nitz says:

      The Napoleonic Code has a de facto presumption of guilt. If Joran is innocent, he has to prove it.

    • No, that only happened during and right after slavery and in our country. I don’t know which is worse hanging or the guillotine.

  15. karma is a bitch. it will always come back around. this monster deserves nothing. aruba doesn’t want him back. he is a national embarrassment to his country. let the peruvian prisons swallow him up into obscurity forever. it shouldn’t take long.

  16. So how do all the Arubans involved with the Holloway investigation feel now that they have Peruvian blood on their hands?

    Good job! Hope u sleep well at night, knowing ur inaction caused the death of this young woman in Peru.

    • They are not responsible for what their government did. Sometimes even when we vote, we get the wrong politicians so they are not responsible. The politicians are.

  17. Excellent, informative and instructive article. I am watching cnn nancy grace and her guests’ comments would make one believe that Peru has no laws that we are accustomed to in other first-world democracies; one commnentator went so far as to say that 1/2 the population has aids, which made me started to do my own research to be better informed and found your well written article.

  18. While the editorial point about the use of the word “alleged” is valid, we must also remember that the presumption of innocence is not cast in stone, either in law or in fact, as there is also a competing and equally strong presumption of guilt as evidenced by the serious infringement of the accused person’s liberty by the imposition of bail and other onerous conditions.

    In Joran’s and many other cases there is an outright refusal of bail and a complete and total denial of the person’s constitutional right to freedom, all arising out of that strong presumption of guilt that operates against the concept of the presumption of innocence.

    • Let me get this straight. You think his constitutional rights have been violated because after being a suspect in two homicides, society will not allow him to wander about until he is tried? There is a reason bail wass refused. If he is guilty and allowed to wander, how many more lives must be lost? Where are the victims rights??? The problem with serial killers is that they do not stop killing. Would you want to lose a family member to a serial killer? He reminds me of Wayne Williams.

      • I am saying nothing of the kind. All I am pointing out is that the presumption of innocence is not cast in stone; it is not an absolute entitlement as there is a strong and competing presumption of guilt. The denial of bail and other onerous restrictions on the accused person’s right to freedom are evidence of that strong presumption of guilt. I hold no brief for Joran or any other accused murderer. In fact, I believe that his case is one that deserves some good old fashioned western justice, the type usually found swinging at the end of a rope under an old oak tree.

  19. Tony, I have seen a number of sources that have said that 50% of the population in the max security prisons in Peru have AIDS. Google Lurigancho Prison, when van der Sloot is likely to go if convicted.

  20. Well then….two women (and counting) only ‘allegedly’ dead? Send this alleged innocent thug whose own parents were terrified of him …..on his way to his next alleged victims!

  21. Haarun Said Abdillahi says:

    My prayers goes to the American and Peruvian teens who lost their lives in the hands of Urine van der Sloot.This bitch is guilty of many crimes including of lying to Halloway family and chop 25,000 dollars.Give him 35 years and hard labour.Let him have the taste of the bullet.If he makes it in Peruvian jail then he didnt do it.His days are numbered.

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