CARMEL, IN—Carmel officials are again defending themselves from disclosing public information about their investigation into the alleged assault of students on the back of a school bus and in a school locker room. Those allegations involve charges of sexual battery.
Five Carmel Police officers have been assigned full time to the investigation. Police say they are interviewing 60 witnesses, but they are witnesses city officials now worry could be compromised by media coverage.
In an unexpected email to members of the media Tuesday, the City of Carmel sent a statement - as provided by their attorney - explaining why the bulk of public documents were redacted. It explained why a police report was virtually all but blacked out, why the police and school officials have failed to comment on the details of not one, but two alleged incidents of inappropriate conduct on a school bus and now in a locker room.
In part, the statement reads:
"Although the City is taking great pains to respect the privacy of the victims of, and the witnesses to, this incident, the mere possibility of detailed media coverage of police interviews will -- and already has -- caused witnesses to reconsider stepping forward with information that is vital to this investigation and to a later successful prosecution."
Local criminal defense attorney, Todd Woodmansee, doesn't agree.
"I have never seen a situation where media attention of a case causes a witness to change their story. I think the parents, the coaches, the administrators - those are the people who will influence what the story is," said Woodmansee.
Woodmansee says he believes the way Carmel officials are handling the case is perpetuating the story, and not the media.
"It's fascinating to me that Carmel would go through such great lengths to try and prevent the media from getting to the bottom of what happened in this particular case," said Woodmansee.
Carmel Police say their investigation should be complete in several weeks.
Below is the press release sent to the media by the City of Carmel:
The attached information is being provided in order to help the community and media understand why the City of Carmel is sharing only general information about the alleged incidents involving Carmel High School students at this time. City Attorney Douglas Haney has given an overview of what can happen if too much information is shared about the specifics of the alleged incidents during the investigation.
The following is provided by City Attorney Douglas Haney:
The City of Carmel Police Department is in the midst of a criminal investigation into serious allegations of abuse involving Carmel High School students. This investigation is being conducted by five veteran police investigators and involves the interview of more than 60 potential witnesses. The City is doing all it can to ensure that this investigation is carried out in a careful, thorough, and professional manner. The City is very concerned however, that its investigation could be unintentionally compromised, and future criminal convictions imperiled, by undue witness influence caused by rumors, blogs, and news reports.
Studies have shown that the memories of witnesses, and especially those of children, can be influenced and tainted by post-event information. This can occur in several ways. If witnesses observe an incident and then read or view additional information about the incident, they often integrate this latter information into their memory of the event. Once this integration occurs, it is often impossible to disengage the after-acquired information from the initial memory. In fact, studies show that up to 25% of witnesses "remember" post-event information as if they had actually observed it as part of the event.
Moreover, if a witness is unsure about a fact, after-acquired information can artificially increase the witness's "confidence factor" about that questionable fact, causing the witness to give it more weight than is warranted. After-acquired information can also create an inference in a witness' mind that the inferred fact "probably was the case," even when the actual observations of the witness would not lead to that conclusion.
Finally, after-acquired erroneous information can often weaken a witness's resolve about actually observed facts. Studies have shown that even erroneous post-incident information with a low level of credibility can later be "remembered" and considered as equally valid as highly credible facts. (See, e.g., Fruzzetti, A.E., Toland, K., Teller, S.A. and Loftus, E.F. (1992). Post event information and retention of details. In Aspects of Memory: The Practical Aspects (2d ed.). Gruneberg, M. & Morris, P. (Eds.), pp. 26-34. New York, NY: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc.; Loftus, E.F. (1989). Distortions in eyewitness memory from post event information: Part 3: Eyewitness testimony. In Criminal Behavior and the Justice System: Psychological Perspectives. Wegener, H., et al. (Eds.). New York, NY: Springer-Verlag; Manning, C.G. & Loftus, E.F. (2009). Expert testimony and memory distortion. Japanese Psychological Research, 38(1), pp. 5-13, and the studies, reports and articles cited therein).
In addition to the risk of tainting witness memories, explicit post-incident information about the alleged assaults now under investigation can severely hamper our investigation. This can occur in two ways. First, in order to test the veracity of witness statements, a police investigator often withholds key incident information during a witness interview. If the witness can remember this withheld information on his or her own, this greatly increases the reliability of the testimony. Of course, this time-tested method of getting to the truth is thwarted if a witness already knows explicit incident facts through secondary sources. Second, although the City is taking great pains to respect the privacy of the victims of, and the witnesses to, this incident, the mere possibility of detailed media coverage of police interviews will-- and already has -- caused witnesses to reconsider stepping forward with information that is vital to this investigation and to a later successful prosecution.
Moreover, it is important to follow a process for determining guilt that does not pre-judge a suspect. Our judicial system is one of the traditions that make the United States different than most other countries. We do not try cases in the media. We do not convict on the basis of rumor, unsubstantiated statements and innuendo. We convict only upon proof of guilt as the result of a trial process that protects the rights of the accused. That is our history and our tradition. We should not disregard it, particularly in a case that involves our most important asset: our children.
The City understands the desire of the media to learn the facts surrounding these incidents as quickly as possible. However, it asks the media to also consider the need of the Carmel Police Department to conduct its investigation without witness influence, intimidation or interference. Rumors, sensationalism and misinformation only hamper this process, and provide a good defense attorney with arguments that credible witness testimony has been unduly influenced by post-incident information. As serious as these allegations are, it would be absolutely tragic if any perpetrators proved to have committed these crimes were to escape justice due to the inadmissibility or unavailability of vital eyewitness evidence.
The Carmel Police Department is well-trained and professional. Our officers will carefully and thoroughly investigate the allegations in this matter and, when their investigation is complete, turn over their findings to the Hamilton County prosecutor. The prosecutor will then determine whether criminal charges will be filed. We ask for the cooperation of the community and the media in allowing this process to proceed in an orderly and proper fashion so that the truth can be revealed and justice served.