Saturday, July 09, 2011

The Casey Anthony Saga

I didn't follow this case at all.  It appears from where I sit that most of the intense interest in this case came from women.  In any case, I wanted to share a few thoughts on this issue.

Back in 1995, when I was 20, I was outraged when O.J. was found innocent.  Are you kidding me?  They let him off??  It remained a burr under my saddle for a long time.  I felt smug satisfaction when he got arrested later for threatening someone with a gun and got a heavy jail sentence.  'Bout time.

But in all honesty, as I have gotten older, fine-tuned my sense of mercy, and learned a bit more about the justice system, I am no longer sure that I disagree anymore with O.J.'s jury.  I'm also not sure that I disagree with Casey Anthony's jury.

Here's why.

First and foremost, I think it's probable, even likely, that both O.J. and Casey Anthony are guilty.  In other words - and keep this in mind in what I am about to say - I think they probably did it.

Be that as it may, it is important to recognize that the U.S. justice system requires that a person be found innocent unless it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt that they are guilty.  That key phrase there - "reasonable doubt" - is somewhat vague on purpose.  Ultimately, what constitutes "reasonable doubt" is up to the person slated to review the evidence - in most cases, a jury.  Essentially, "reasonable doubt" implies that no other logical conclusion can come from the facts of the case.  If other logical conclusions can be drawn, then that represents reasonable doubt - even if those other logical conclusions seem unlikely.  That's where the "reasonable" part comes in, and that is perhaps the most subjective part of determining guilt.  What is reasonable to one person may be unreasonable to another.  This is why juries are made up of 12 people instead of just 1.

What all this means is that, in a manner of speaking, it doesn't actually matter whether a person is guilty or not.  What matters is whether the prosecution can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person is guilty.  They may be guilty as sin, but if it can't be shown without reasonable doubt, then they must, by law, be found innocent.  Otherwise, people could be convicted merely on suspicion, reputation, convenience, or any number of other irrelevant factors.  That's what happens in Third World dictatorships and Medieval theocracies, and we call such courts "kangaroo courts" because they are a joke, a farce of real justice systems.  If we value the freedoms and traditions we have in the United States, we certainly wouldn't want courts like this.  You can't convict people just because you think they are guilty, or simply because you don't like them or think they are a bad person, or whatever.

This is the case with Casey Anthony.  I don't think anyone would disagree that she is a despicable and disturbed individual.  Anyone who doesn't apparently care about the disappearance and death of their child is clearly emotionally sick.  But not loving your child doesn't make you a murderer.  While I think it is likely that she killed her baby, the prosecution did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she did, in fact, kill her baby.  It was a case of circumstantial evidence, and any prosecutor in the country will tell you that these kinds of cases are very, very difficult to win.  They are so difficult because when only circumstantial evidence is being presented, there is almost always going to be room for reasonable doubt - room for interpreting the events differently, even if those interpretations don't seem as likely.  Remember, alternate interpretations of circumstantial evidence don't have to be as reasonable as the main interpretations, they just have to be reasonable interpretations (as opposed to unreasonable).   

In the case of Casey Anthony, I think there was reasonable doubt, and clearly the jury did too.

I think this is probably true in the O.J. situation as well, although there was some physical evidence in that situation.  I honestly don't remember all the details now, but clearly the jury felt like there were reasons to doubt his guilt.

And that's where my aforementioned sense of mercy comes in to play.  I remember being outraged at the O.J. jurors, virtually accusing them of letting O.J. off the hook because he was black and a lot of the jurors were black.  A lot of people now are saying similar things about Casey Anthony - that they let her off the hook because she was a woman.  The implication is that it is some vast jury conspiracy to let murderers go free.  The fact is, in both these cases, the juries were sequestered to keep them from being influenced by the media hype surrounding the case.  They heard no reports, saw no interviews with lawyers or legal experts, got no Facebook updates, didn't hear a word spoken by Nancy Grace or Geraldo.  All they had were the facts as they were presented in court.  Without the thrust of public opinion - which clearly was against Casey Anthony - they simply made a decision based on the facts they were given.  And those facts left room for a reasonable doubt, even if the alternative theories didn't seem as likely - and even if Casey Anthony probably was guilty.  You simply can't convict someone of a crime - especially a murder charge carrying the death penalty - based on "probably."

And so I feel merciful towards the Casey Anthony and O.J. juries because they were simply doing the best they could do, with the evidence they had, shouldering an enormous social burden to make the right choice.  Imagine being faced with the possibility of putting someone in the electric chair who is innocent, or letting a murderer go free.  And imagine knowing that whatever choice you make, people are probably going to send you death threats.  I don't envy that responsibility, especially in such a high profile media frenzy case like both of these were.  I applaud the juries for doing the best they could do in an impossible situation, and recognizing that the laws of the United States require a person to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt before convicting them.  

4 comments:

Trent N. said...

I marvel at how well our system of justice is set up. It is hard to convict someone of a crime (and it should be!) However, judging by your comments, it seems the only way you could convict someone is with clear video tape evidence, 10 eyewitnesses and a signed confession! Circumstantial evidence is STILL evidence. It should not be tossed aside as idle gossip or hearsay. In the 2 cases you mentioned, the amount of it was sooo overwhelming that a conviction was more than merited (in my opinion).

I think the two cases you mention are quite different. The OJ trial was so racially charged, that a conviction was next to impossible in the wake of the Rodney King fiasco. In that town, at that time, the conviction of a famous black man wouldn't have happened if he had committed the murder on live TV for all to see.

But I do get your point. If I was on a jury in a murder case, it would be hard to give somebody the needle if I wasn't SURE they were guilty. But after following the two cases you highlighted closely, I think I would have been "sure" enough to convict based on the total body of evidence.

Thanks for posting!

Trent N.

My needle and thread said...

It is awfully easy to make decisions when it doens't matter what you think because it doesn't really affect anything. When you are sitting on a jury and you realize that you actually have to make an important decision and be fair to both sides of the argument then you have to understand what reasonable doubt really means. You really have to be convinced that someone is guilty or you can't in good conscience say guilty. That is not popular in some cases but it is the right thing. I know almost nothing about this case but I do know that someone shouldn't be convicted because the TV news has convinced people that the person is guilty!!

Good post!!

Scott said...

I agree, Son-jay.

It's important to note that verdicts have to be unanimous. It's not that just 1 person, or 3 people, thought she was innocent. All 12 jurors had to agree that she was innocent. Meaning all 12 jurors agreed there was reasonable doubt, based on the evidence presented at trial.

Scott said...

Trent:

Thanks as always for posting.

If I were king of the world, I would do away completely with the death penalty. But barring such a drastic measure, I would at the very least require either DNA proof, or video proof, of a murder before any convicted murderer could get the death penalty.

That's actually not at all germane to the discussion, but your comment about video tape evidence made me think of it :)

In any case, I agree that obviously circumstantial evidence can sometimes be so overwhelming that there is no other logical explanation (i.e., there is no reasonable doubt). You're probably right that this applies to the O.J. trial, but I'd have to delve back into it to make the decision for sure, and I don't wanna. :)

I'm not sure I can agree with you about Casey Anthony, but we can certainly agree to disagree!

~ Scott

Serene Musings Books of the Year, 2005-2015