Public editor

Why an ‘alleged’ criminal?

Updated: 2013-11-13T01:22:29Z

By Derek Donovan

The Kansas City Star

An emailer asked a question I hear fairly frequently about reporting on criminal suspects:

I am often puzzled by The Star’s use of the words "alleged" and "suspected" in connection with crimes that have been committed. My OED defines “allege” as “claim that someone has done something wrong, typically without proof.” In many cases, the perpetrator is caught in the act of committing the crime. There is no doubt that this person committed the crime. Why then does The Star refer to this person as the alleged or suspected perpetrator?

I agree that these references sometimes seem a bit ludicrous, as in a case earlier this year where a man was apprehended while holding a purse he had apparently just stolen a block away. He was called the “suspect” there.

But the basic principle here is the one the U.S. justice system is based on: You are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. From a legal standpoint, it’s pretty clear. Even someone just caught in a criminal act hasn’t been convicted, so he remains a suspect or an alleged criminal (though I think that term is a bit too weighted most of the time).

To reach Derek Donovan, call 816-234-4487 weekday mornings or send email to Follow him at

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