The Satisfying Justice Theater Of Martin Shkreli’s Arrest

It's no coincidence photographers just so happened to be there during his perp walk

(Getty) — Getty Images
Dec 18, 2015 at 11:09 AM ET

Take a widely reviled, gloating pharmaceutical CEO like Martin Shkreli—hated for upping the price of a life-saving AIDS drug by nearly 5000 percent— and add the time-honored American tradition of photographing high-profile arrests for gleeful public consumption, and you have what just might be the perfect perp walk.

Shrkeli was arrested by federal agents Thursday at Murray Hill Tower Apartments in midtown Manhattan on securities fraud charges alleging he illegally pilfered stock from the biotech company Retrophin he founded in 2011. Those charges are technically unrelated to the price hikes that destroyed him in the court of public opinion, but his infamy explains why we have these viscerally satisfying images: The news media was tipped off to his arrest, and photographers were on hand to capture the 32-year-old’s slumped shoulders as he was led away in cuffs.

Next, the Internet erupted in unrestrained joy. Schadenfreude-filled galleries of photos of his arrest cropped up instanly. News headlines reveled the unremitting karmic satisfaction that Shkreli, “Pharma Bro” and new icon of corporate greed, was getting exactly what he deserved. Twitter had a field day of told-you-so’s heavy on the general glow of contentment that comes with a sense of ironclad justice.

You would be forgiven for forgetting he hadn’t actually been convicted of anything.

Shkreli joins a long list of prominent people arrested with seemingly perfect, schadenfreude-inducing choreography. Just this May, when key FIFA officials were finally arrested on a laundry list of corruption charges, photographers were waiting for them outside their luxury Swiss hotel. (Of course, it being a luxury Swiss hotel, staff held up bedsheets to protect the arrested officials from prying eyes.)

But, performative perp walks aren’t just uncomplicated fun for the news-reading public. Remember the 2011 arrest of French politician and former chief of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), who was pulled off a flight at JFK airport and detained on charges of raping New York hotel housekeeper Nafissatou Diallo.

Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg inadvertently exposed the perp walk’s inherent bias toward guilt when he said of Strauss-Kahn, “I think it is humiliating, but you know if you don’t want to do the perp walk, don’t do the crime,” Later, he hedged a little. “The real sad thing is if someone is accused and does the perp walk and turns out not to be guilty, then society really ought to look in the mirror,” he added.

The charges against Strauss-Kahn were eventually dropped and the case settled, but not before we got a minute to examine exactly how pernicious the perp walk can be. In large part, that happened because France was outraged, shocked, and furious over DSK’s treatment, which led to a little bit of navel-gazing on U.S. soil. At the New Yorker, they noted that may be because there is no French counterpart to the practice. In fact, the French don’t even typically let photographers in the courtroom, and the publishing of such photos is illegal there.

The contrast gave Americans pause to consider their own appetites for the practice. “Even if the courts will let prosecutors get away with ritual humiliation of people who haven’t yet been convicted,” Gene Healy wrote in the libertarian magazine Reason, “the gratuitous perp-walk should be considered a serious violation of prosecutorial ethics.” He later called it “pretrial punishment.”

Writing at The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen called it “an officially-sanctioned and eternally re-enacted plot between the media and the police, the overt act of which benefits both parties—and prosecutors as well—at the expense of the suspect.”

Cohen blames the cops—who use such tactics to get good press and look like heroes, and the reporters and producers, who show up and snap a gazillion pictures, and the prosecutors, who may benefit from the pervasive sense of guilt the jurors will already have toward the defendant. And then there’s us, a willing public, satisfied by the shaming ritual that restores our sense that justice is somehow being served—a bad guy has been caught, and we’ll worry about the details of his crime and punishment later.

Timothy McVeigh’s perp walk was, Cohen notes, the first time many of us saw McVeigh alive before he was executed. And many still grapple with alleged JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald’s perp walk, which ended with his death by Jack Ruby’s hands.

In spite of how problematic the practice can be, it still provides a sense of justice for citizens. In a piece at Poynter trying to make sense of how we justify it over the years (citing the perp walks of OJ Simpson, Ken Lay, and Bernie Madoff as prime examples), Al Tompkins quotes investigative reporter Art Harris, who calls it the “crime reporter’s red carpet.” These humiliating images get used over and over, often in lieu of any other fresher images of the subject, and what’s worse, they get slowed down on TV for effect.

“Everyone looks guilty when they are slo-mo’ed,” Canadian lawyer Lisa Taylor told Poynter. “It is hard not to look exhausted/creepy/guilty when you just spent a night in jail.”

In a 2013 paper looking at the shaming ritual of the American perp walk, researcher Sandrine Boudana out of Tel Aviv theorizes that this ritual provides American audiences with a sense of togetherness. The staging of the subject is a performance we can all share in. “In this position of judge, the group develops a sense of togetherness that creates or recreates the social bonds,” Boudana writes.

In this sense, Shkreli’s arrest and perp walk meets everyone’s criteria for a satisfying experience—excepting Shkreli himself, of course. Because he’s become such a villain in the public imagination, Thursday’s events are not likely to spur any of us into fighting against this longstanding American tradition. We may know that being arrested and frog-marched through public makes you look guilty as hell regardless of the facts—a blatant disregard for our stated legal values of presumed innocence. We all want to believe that we adhere to the principle of our own justice system—innocent until proven guilty. But tell that to everyone gloating on Twitter right now.