Two young and handsome doctors walked out of Toronto’s Old City Hall on Wednesday of last week, released on bail after being charged with sexual assault. Press photographs showed Amitabh Chauhan and Suganthan Kayilasanathan, both 32, impeccably dressed and groomed. That was odd, for according to news accounts they had spent the last few days in the Don Jail wearing the same clothes they’d had on when arrested and had been unshaven at their bail hearing. The two gave careful statements to the press, expressing faith in the justice system and an intention to defend themselves vigorously.
This smooth performance was reportedly the work of Navigator Ltd., an elite public relations firm hired by Chauhan and Kayilasanathan. Navigator’s website promises: “We?.?.?.?help you shift public opinion?… Our clients’ challenges are always unique, but they share one constant: the need to win in the court of public opinion.” “Winner takes all,” proclaims the website.
Chauhan and Kayilasanathan certainly need to win in a court of law: if they don’t, they’ll be spending a lot of time in prison. But why do they need to win in the court of public opinion? The two doctors (or Navigator) must believe that, if the court of public opinion is favourable, then they are more likely to be found innocent in the court of law.
Rock stars, business titans and politicians have always hired public relations advisers as well as lawyers when they have a spot of legal bother. But the flacks who worked for Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart or Eliot Spitzer arguably were trying to protect a valuable public image, essential to what their clients did and incorporating substantial human capital, rather than influence the outcome of criminal proceedings. Chauhan and Kayilasanathan are not public personalities. They are ordinary citizens, with one exception: apparently they can afford the most expensive help available. Their purpose in hiring public relations advisers can only be to influence the legal system.
Might they succeed? We are all influenced by the general mood of our time, judges and juries included. But there is no evidence that, in a particular case, a judge is affected by what he reads in the newspaper or sees on television, although he will, of course, have his own views on things, and may have an idiosyncratic reaction to someone appearing in his courtroom. As for juries, there are a variety of safeguards to prevent their being improperly influenced, starting with methods of jury selection. In their 2003 book Free Press vs. Fair Trials, professors Jon Bruschke and William Loges conclude that jurors work hard to base their decision on the evidence presented in the courtroom rather than on what they read or hear in the media. Pretrial publicity bias, they say, is not replicated in an actual trial. For one thing, by the time a trial takes place jurors have forgotten what they read in the newspapers months or years before.
In 2009-2010, Navigator Ltd. represented Michael Bryant, the Ontario attorney general charged with criminal negligence for his role in a bizarre car accident in which an intoxicated bike courier was killed. The charges against Bryant were later dropped by an independent special prosecutor as having no merit. In the meantime, public attention had shifted from Bryant’s role in the accident to the conduct of the dead courier, focusing on his troubled childhood, frequent drunkenness, and habit of engaging in angry confrontations with motorists. Did Navigator promote this narrative shift, and did it benefit Michael Bryant?
Will something similar happen in the case of the two doctors? How could public opinion be formed or “shifted,” and what would be the effect? Perhaps we will soon read and hear about the past of the woman who claims to have been sexually assaulted. Perhaps we will see photographs of Chauhan playing with his two small children and read about Kayilasanathan’s valuable work as a family physician. Would this affect the legal outcome? I don’t think so. The best efforts of public relations advisers notwithstanding, the important thing is what really happened.