suspect

Oddly enough “suspect” comes from Latin suspectus past participle of suspicere, which means ‘to look up, look up to, admire, esteem,’ from sub ‘below’ + specere “to look at.”   Douglas Harper of the Online Etymological Dictionary explains, “The notion is of ‘look at secretly,’ hence, ‘look at distrustfully.’”

Local newspapers often provide summaries of criminal activity in the area with reports such as this:

“Unknown suspect(s) broke into a garage in the 500 block of Sycamore Lane and took $537 worth of pinball-machine parts.”

This use of the word suspect is suspect. If law enforcement doesn’t have a suspicion about who committed the crime, there is no suspect. Thus, there is no such thing as an unknown suspect.

More troubling is the fact that people — journalists and police (I suspect that reporters lift the wording directly from police blotters) — are failing to distinguish “suspect” from “perpetrator.” In the American judicial system suspects are presumed innocent until (or should we say “unless”) proven guilty in a court of law. And some people suspected by law enforcement of a crime are in fact innocent. Since any of us may have to serve on a jury, reporters should help us keep our minds open by saying, “A woman told police a gunman held her up,” if his identity is unknown or “Joe Blow is a suspect in the hold-up,” if he has been fingered. And instead of speaking of the crimes of “unknown suspects” crime reports can say, “Unknown person(s)” or simply, “Someone” broke into the garage.

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