September 22, 2013

Experts: Mom's strategy in Ayla case could backfire

Trista Reynolds says she will release details about her daughter's case. But legal experts say that using publicity can often do more harm than good.

By MATT HONGOLTZ-HETLING Morning Sentinel

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Trista Reynolds
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Trista Reynolds

The Associated Press

While Tepfer has no direct knowledge of the Ayla Reynolds case, he said it bears the classic hallmarks of cases in which law enforcement officials are pressured into bringing charges.

When violence is perpetrated against a child, it leads to a level of hysteria among the public, he said, and rural Maine is just the type of place where public outcries are most powerful.

"If it's in a smaller community, things like abductions and missing toddlers and violent crime is uncommon and it upsets the community," he said. "People in the community talk about it. Sometimes things they hear aren't true."

The net effect can be imprisonment for those who are innocent, and freedom for those who are guilty, Tepfer said.

Many times, seemingly airtight cases have unraveled and the initial suspect is eventually proven innocent, he said.

BATTLING EMOTIONS

The decision on whether to move forward with charges in the Ayla Reynolds case ultimately lies with the Maine Attorney General's Office, and Stokes said his criminal investigation remains unaffected by the public uproar.

"You just can't let public pressure or public emotion affect your judgment because you really do compromise the integrity of the investigation," he said.

Stokes said that in the last month alone, he's gotten 31 messages through an online comment form on the Attorney General Office's website asking for justice to be brought in the Reynolds case.

The messages are the product of a group of active websites, blogs and Facebook pages dedicated to Ayla in which commentors repeatedly express anger that DiPietro hasn't been taken into custody.

Postings urge group actions including contacting Stokes, signing petitions, putting signs up on lawns and leaving porch lights on overnight.

One Facebook page includes hundreds of digitally altered pictures of Ayla, often placed alongside images of DiPietro, in which speech balloons and thought balloons are inserted that accuse DiPietro of the crime.

Jeff Hanson, Trista Reynolds' former stepfather, operates one of the sites, aylareynolds.com, and is in contact with those who operate others.

Hanson said the public campaign is designed to prevent the investigation from becoming a cold case, and he is prepared for the possibility that it could hinder the investigation rather than help it.

"I'll tell you what Trista said. She says it's her daughter and she wants justice," he said. "If the justice system fails because of what she's done here, she'll take the blame and so will I."

The goal of the public campaign, he said, is to push the Attorney General's Office to charge DiPietro, an action Hanson said is warranted by the evidence the family will release Tuesday.

Stokes said the calls for DiPietro's arrest won't make a difference in the case, but experts said it can be almost impossible for law enforcement to be unaffected by the pressure.

PUBLIC PRESSURE INTENSE

The impact of public pressure is difficult to quantify, according to Criselda Ruiz, interim executive director of the New England Innocence Project, which advocates on behalf of the wrongfully convicted.

"I don't think anyone would doubt that media coverage and public perception can be a factor, but to what degree? I don't know that anyone's measured that," Ruiz said.

Ruiz said prosecutors can be sensitive to outside pressure because perceptions about their success, both internally and externally, can be tied to the outcome of highly publicized cases.

Ruiz said such publicity can also hurt a case further along the process by making it difficult to find an unbiased jury.

Using publicity to push a case along "is a very bad idea," said Bruce MacFarlane, a professional affiliate with the University of Manitoba Faculty of Law and former deputy attorney general of Manitoba.

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