What's a 'Person of Interest'?

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Matt Kabel / The Middletown Press / AP

Raymond Clark III, 24, wearing a white T shirt, is driven away from an apartment building by police on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009, in Middletown, Conn.

Raymond Clark was arrested Sept. 17 in the murder of Yale graduate student Annie Le, despite never being called a suspect. Up until the time police took him into custody, they were very careful to call Clark only a "person of interest." They obtained a warrant to search Clark's home and have taken DNA samples from his hair, saliva and fingernails. He was photographed being led in handcuffs into the back of a police car. It sure seems as if police were treating him as a suspect all along. So why were police so reluctant to call him one?

The term person of interest is meaningless. There's no legal definition, and the Department of Justice doesn't offer a formal meaning — despite the fact that it first popularized the term, during the investigation into the 1996 bombing of venues at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. In that case, security guard Richard Jewell was dubbed a "person of interest," sparking a frenzy of speculation despite scant evidence of his involvement in the bombing. Once exonerated, Jewell pursued a series of successful libel suits against media organizations whom he accused of ruining his reputation by using the term.

There is formal terminology available if the police decide to hedge their bets against declaring someone a suspect. The Justice Department has definitions for both subject (someone police are interested in keeping tabs on) and target (someone believed to have some level of involvement).

Despite the terms at their disposal, police departments often prefer to dub an individual a person of interest because it has a measure of political correctness that technical terms lack, according to Dr. Rande Matteson, an ex-officer and professor of criminal justice at Florida's Saint Leo University. Matteson says the term is "less damaging" than dubbing someone a suspect, particularly if the police prove to be wrong in their identification. Cynthia Hujar Orr, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says authorities may also use the term as a way to curry cooperation, on the assumption that an individual may be more willing to work with police if he or she is not identified in the media as a suspect.

Both Hujar Orr and Matteson agree that the term has outlived its usefulness in the Le case. When an investigation of an individual reaches the point that police are able to obtain search warrants for DNA evidence, they argue, it's time to stop dubbing someone a person of interest — and start calling the person a suspect.