What does the expression "person of interest" really mean?
It's an ambiguous term that's been bandied about quite a bit during investigations following the Boston Marathon bombings. Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, the mother of the accused bombers, has herself been labeled a "person of interest" in recent days. But what does the term mean to the investigators who use it, and does it have any legal weight?
In short, no. Authorities use the phrase to communicate to the public that they have their eyes on someone in connection with an investigation, but it doesn't mean they have evidence of any wrongdoing — because if they did, presumably a proper legal term like "suspect" would suffice.
But, as the label has shown us in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, those three little words carry considerable weight in the court of public opinion. At best, the term has come to signify a step removed from an official "suspect." And intentionally or not, it can cast blame or suspicion.
"Critics worry that the term has become a crutch for law enforcement officers, allowing them to draw attention to individuals without formally accusing them," Jamie Jones of Florida's St. Petersburg Times wrote in 2004.
By then, the phrase had been gaining traction for years. The "person of interest" descriptor was first widely used during a government probe into the 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Summer Olympics, when suspicion fell on security guard Richard Jewell, said Time. But Jewell was found to be completely innocent — though not until his "trial by media" was long past.
Jewell never forgave the press for lending the term currency, going on to successfuly sue various media organizations for libel.
That case should have taught the press to be careful, according to The Poynter Institute's Kelly McBride.
She warned the American Journalism Review that the phrase can mean authorities "are trying to scare the person into confessing, drum up more information about the person and kind of otherwise smooth over cracks in their case."
"As journalists, we have to treat that term with increased skepticism," she said. "[W]e should be pressing authorities to say why this is a 'person of interest,' why hasn't he been charged, what is the evidence, and what are their motives in having us publish this ... in a newsroom, when someone is labeled a 'person of interest,' there has to be an additional threshold ... including, if possible, independent reporting that somehow verifies what the police are telling us," she told the American Journalism Review.
Some say the tactic is an outright abuse of power.
''I think the government, through its use of terms like person of interest, is muddying the legal waters in order to expand its own ability to investigate people and pursue terrorist suspects,'' lawyer Ronald Weich told The New York Times as part of their 2003 series, "Words as Tactics In War on Terror."
"They're stretching their legal authority to the breaking point," Weich told The Times.
That limit was recently tested in court by Steven J. Hatfill, the scientist targeted in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's 2001 anthrax probe. He sued the Department of Justice for violating his privacy after being named a "person of interest" in the case.
The verdict? The court found “not a scintilla of evidence that would indicate that Dr. Hatfill had anything to do with” the anthrax investigation, according to a 2008 ruling cited in The Atlantic.
The Justice Department moved quickly to contain the affair, settling with Hatfill for $5.82 million. Hatfill also sued various media organizations for libel; more on that here.
Pressed for a more exact definition, authorities say "person of interest" only means they want to talk to the person. Meaning, the person that they're interested in. Meaning, the person that they're interested in for reasons they can't discuss. In the grey area of investigative work, one can see how the phrase gained such a foothold; but readers should know that its meaning is nowhere near as sure as it sounds.