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

Trista Reynolds plans to release details about the case of her missing daughter, Ayla, to the public Tuesday in hopes, she said, it will lead to charges against Ayla's father.

Trista Reynolds
click image to enlarge

Trista Reynolds

The Associated Press

Justin DiPietro was caring for the 20-month-old child in his Waterville home when he reported her missing on Dec. 17, 2011.

Maine State Police said in May 2012 that Ayla is probably dead. The case is still being investigated.

Reynolds and her supporters say the state has all the evidence needed for a prosecution.

But legal experts say it's not that simple and public pressure and publicity can often do more harm than good.

In a case like Ayla's, law enforcement officials are battling not only a complicated case that can be difficult to prosecute, but also intense pressure from an angry public seeking justice.

Deputy Attorney General William Stokes said Maine's investigators and prosecutors are frustrated, but won't allow emotion -- either their own or those of the family -- to have an impact on the case.

DiPietro said he last saw Ayla, wearing pajamas that said "Daddy's Princess," when he put her to bed at his 29 Violette Ave. home the night of Dec. 16, 2011.

He had moved from Portland into his mother's home in October, when he took temporary custody of Ayla, so his mother could help care for her. His mother, Phoebe, was not home the night Ayla disappeared, but his sister and girlfriend and their children were.

When DiPietro got up the next morning, Ayla was gone, he told police. His call to them sparked a search that became a criminal investigation two weeks later.

Before that day, Ayla was the center of a custody battle between her parents. She had gone to live with DiPietro when Reynolds went into rehabilitation for substance abuse. The day before she disappeared, Reynolds filed for permanent custody.

Since then, the battle between the two has been over whether DiPietro is to blame for Ayla's disappearance.

Public statements from the families and heavy media coverage have fired up public emotion, including frequent calls on websites set up to chronicle the case for DiPietro's imprisonment or even death.

DiPietro and his supporters have said Ayla was taken from the home by strangers, a claim Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said doesn't "pass the straight-face test."

The investigation, which police have called the largest criminal case in the state's history, is now a month older than Ayla was when she disappeared.

Tired of waiting for an answer, Reynolds plans to reveal what a website run by her family calls horrific physical evidence.

Earlier this month, Reynolds told a television interviewer that police told her they'd found Ayla's blood in DiPietro's vehicle, on his shoes and in his bedroom.

Police also said in January 2012 that they found traces of her blood in the Violette Avenue home's basement.

THE COURT OF PUBLIC OPINION

If what Reynolds says is true, that evidence may appear to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt -- the legal threshold needed to convict a person of a crime in the United States.

But the public and the Reynolds family are not capable of making that judgment, said Josh Tepfer, an attorney and co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions.

The center, a joint project of schools of law at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University, maintains a national registry of exonerations -- crime convictions that are overturned when the person is proven innocent.

The center has documented more than 2,000 exonerations in the United States over the past 23 years, and said that number represents a small percentage of those wrongfully convicted, Tepfer said.

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.

"Public and media pressure ... poses the greatest risk for distorting normal decision making in the criminal justice system," MacFarlane wrote in an academic paper on wrongful convictions.

In an email last week, MacFarlane said the release of information to the public is unlikely to advance justice.

"The bottom line is that the planned press conference, at least for that purpose, is a very bad idea," he said. "Victim lobbying efforts, though well-intentioned, can backfire badly."

In his paper, MacFarlane said law enforcement officials are most often swayed in publicized cases involving "violence toward a woman or child, or cases in which a child dies under tragic circumstances," and that public outcry can lead to tunnel vision in which investigators build a case against an individual rather than weighing all evidence objectively.

Stokes said there is frustration about the case all up and down the chain of command, but the pressure of emotion isn't swaying judgment.

"We're as frustrated as anybody else is," Stokes said. "We're in the business of solving cases. There's nothing more frustrating to us than not being able to solve the case and bring some closure for everyone involved."

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at:

mhhetling@mainetoday.com

 

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