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Words, Oct. 21



A reader asks, "When did 'suspect' become 'person of interest'? Is there really a difference between the two?"

An online legal dictionary says:

"Unlike 'suspect' and 'material witness,' 'person of interest' has no legal definition, but generally refers to someone law enforcement authorities would like to speak with or investigate further in connection with a crime. It may be used, rather than calling the person a 'suspect,' when they don't want their prime suspect to know they're watching him closely. Critics complain that the term has become a method for law enforcement officers to draw attention to individuals without formally accusing them. There is concern ... that innocent people will be tainted by being labeled a 'person of interest.' The use of the term increased in popularity 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 judgments against his accusers.

I consulted the noted criminal-defense lawyer John Wesley Hall. He writes: " 'Person of interest' is likely just a libel-proof way of saying 'We think this guy is a suspect but we don't yet have probable cause and we want to talk to him and hope he's stupid enough to confess and make our case.' 'Suspect' means we are ready to arrest, 'person of interest' means we aren't.' If the 'person of interest' is a mere witness, they should call him a witness."

Newspaper jargon is usually as dull as other jargon, but I heard an interesting bit the other day. "Kelvin MacKenzie was a legendary editor hired by Rupert Murdoch to shake up the tabloid The Sun. MacKenzie delighted in unleashing tough stories on the powerful and wasn't overly concerned by the facts. Stick a ferret up their trousers, he would tell his staff. If the story turned out to be wrong, as it sometimes did, McKenzie would burst out of his office and shout: 'Reverse ferret!' " Stick one of those creatures up Rupert Murdoch's trousers, and there'd never be need for reversal.

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