Undercover operation and huge TV circus ethical?

Crime reporter Peter R. de Vries paid the 34-year old business man who befriended and secretly recorded Joran van der Sloot some US$ 35,000. Bounty hunters are a well-known phenomenon, also on TV, as are rewards offered by police or private persons. We have all seen episodes of ‘America’s Most Wanted’. I guess it is common knowledge these days that one can serve both the law and one’s own wallet simultaneously.

The business man gained Joran’s trust, also by smoking marijuana with him (click here). So the question arises, exaclty how stoned were these two men during their conversations? Shouldn’t there at least be a code of ethics applicable to crime reporters and the people they hire?

De Vries runs a TV-show and by building a huge television circus around this particular episode (e.g. by showing up in talk shows beforehand and not disclosing what was on the tapes for several days) he showed that he needed (and got) his ratings: 7 million people in the Netherlands watched his show last Sunday. Are we talking about a trial by media here? Considering the fact that Peter R. de Vries stated time and again that he has solved the case (which is not certain at all), Joran seems to have been convicted by this TV show. The business man who secretly taped Joran said on ABC News: “We’re going to punish him. His punishment will be very simple, sir. He’s gonna get a lifetime sentence. Maybe not in jail. But I would not want to be Joran van der Sloot after everybody in the world sees these undercover tapes. … There ain’t no rock in this world you can crawl under.

The media plays an increasing role in solving criminal matters, but they are not prosecutors and should refrain from acting as if they were. In my opinion, the media should find a balance between a suspect’s right to a fair trial and the public’s right to be informed. The question is whether Peter R. de Vries crossed the line here. This issue remains yet to be determined, but I remain, to say the least, skeptical about this style of reporting.

From what I understand, Joran was videotaped for approximately 25 hours. It goes without saying that in order to form an educated opinion about all the conversations between Joran and his ‘friend’, one should view all the tapes, not just the parts that were aired. That certainly goes for a public prosecutor. The interpretation of Joran’s account is not merely a simple grammatical matter. Also of significant relevance is the context in which it was told, and the tapes that were not aired might very well offer more insight into the relevant context of his wording. After all, to determine the trustworthiness of a conversation, and in particular a confession, one should also take into account the circumstances surrounding it (e.g. the influence of drugs or pressure, the mental state of the person involved, etc.).

As far as confessions under U.S. law are concerned, I refer to the Fulminante decision (Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 111 S. Ct. 1246, 113 L. Ed. 2d 302). Fulminante confessed a murder to a fellow inmate, who actually was a paid federal informant, in return for protection. Fulminante was subsequently indicted for the killing, and his confession was used at trial despite his objection. A jury found him guilty of murder and sentenced him to death. The U.S. Supreme Court applied the so-called harmful error test (with respect to the Miranda rights: the right to be informed expressly of ones constitutional rights before interrogation begins) and found that the jurors most likely would not have convicted Fulminante had they not heard his coerced confession, thus its use at trial was harmful. The Court ordered the case back for a retrial, this time without use of the confession.

Karel Frielink
Attorney (Lawyer) / Partner


  1. For an update on the case itself see CNN’s website
  2. See also the comments of the Dutch Public Broadcasting Ombudsman (in Dutch)
  3. Patrick van der Eem, the man who secretely videotaped Joran van der Sloot, was secretly taped himself. He expects to become a millionaire with this entire case. He asserted that he himself has organized the entire operation and that he knows who has thrown the body in the sea.
  4. On 22 September 2008, Peter R. de Vries has won an Emmy Award for his report. The report was nominated in the category Current Affairs (news) of this international television award. Curiously enough, Peter R. de Vries still believes that the case has been solved. However, despite the “prize of all prizes“, De Vries has not solved the case to any acceptable degree, neither legally, nor fundamentally! Under US law, and under the laws of most countries worldwide, the conclusion will be the same.
  5. See for Peter R. de Vries’ habit to personally attack critics and others here and here (in Dutch only).

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