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Why the face of an alleged killer must not be seen.

Thomas Kelly

by CHRIS URQUHART

When I found out late last night that someone had been charged with the murder of Thomas Kelly, I was both relieved and curious.

I was relieved because like everybody else, my heart aches for Tom’s family and friends as they continue to grieve. I was curious, though, because I wanted to know more about the person charged with this horrible crime.  What is his name?  What does he look like?  Where does he live?  What is his job?  Who are his friends?

Of course, I’m not the only who one that wants answers to these questions.  The story of Tom’s murder has been talked about for a fortnight, across Australia.  Everywhere from Kings Cross to Kincumber, from Darlinghurst to the Darling Downs, people want to know who did it, and they want to know why.

Journalists are an enquiring bunch, who not only want to find out these answers, but want you to read them first  in their newspaper, or see them first, in their news program. Often, journalists find out a lot more than they can ever include in their story.  Within hours of the arrest last night, reporters knew the name of the accused murderer, what he looks like, where he lives  and more.

I’m certain that nearly every newspaper, news website and television news program in Australia has clear, unblurred images of the man accused of murdering of Thomas Kelly.  In the modern age of the internet, they’re not that difficult to find.  I’ve seen them today for myself.

But there’s a bloody good reason why these images can’t be published yet.  In this case the identity of the person accused of killing Thomas Kelly is crucial to the prosecution’s case.  What he looks like is important, because one day, a person in a witness box may be asked to describe the offender.  A description of him may be crucial in witnesses linking him to being at the location at the time of the alleged attack.

Thomas Kelly’s parents speak with 60 Minutes

Additionally, jurors may be asked if they know the person accused or if they have ever seen him before.  If they’ve seen his photo in a newspaper, under the headline “Accused Murderer”, it can make it very hard for the accused to get a fair trial.

Somebody who may well have killed Thomas Kelly could walk free, and his family might never receive justice.  No one wants that.

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I can imagine the mobile phones for the media’s lawyers ringing close to midnight last night.  “We’ve got a photo of him, can we run it?” they’d be asked  “No.” would be the answer.  Of course the papers would love to have that photo on the front page.  But today, they’re just not allowed to.

When I woke, this morning and read twitter, I already saw people posting pictures of “the animal who murdered Thomas Kelly”, along with the name of the person who has been charged.

This is the modern age.  Internet vigilantes rushing to justice.  You can understand their anger, their outrage.  We’re all angry.  We’re all outraged.  But we all need to think and act carefully.

What if the person posting the picture got it wrong.  What if they made a mistake and the picture is actually of an innocent person who happens to have the same name, sent to hundreds of thousands of people across the internet, with the caption, “Murderer”?

Even if they got it right and that picture is in fact, the person accused of Tom’s murder, sending it out, with that caption is still wrong.

The person who is accused of killing Thomas Kelly has been charged with murder, but has not been found guilty.  For now, he is an alleged murderer.  Secondly, distributing an image of him online is dangerous for the same reasons as it is dangerous for newspapers to print them.

“Who cares,” some people might say.  “He’s an animal.”

I care.  I want the person who is accused of Thomas Kelly to receive a fair trial.  And if he is found guilty, I want that person punished to the full extent of the law.

I don’t want vigilante justice.  I want the law to take its course.  I want people to be patient.  I want prosecutors to get a conviction.

So I urge you, in this case, and others in the future:  have a long think before you post, re-post, tweet or retweet pictures of a “killer” or “murderer” to your facebook, your twitter,  your instagram or anywhere else.

Chris Urquhart is a reporter with A Current Affair.  He has a decade of experience as a journalist in television and radio news.  Follow him on Twitter here.