The Anthony Trial

Not guilty? So what?

July 5th 2011

 I’ve been watching the public response to the Casey Anthony trial with a certain amount of befuddlement and apprehension.

Understand, I haven’t followed the trial at all. I was only dimly aware of the proceedings, and that it was one of those annoying background whinges that passes for news on the cable networks. Just the fact that the reptilian Nancy Gracie was front and center on the coverage would be enough to assure that I would have no interest in the proceedings. Except I didn’t even know that until yesterday. I barely knew about the trial, and I didn’t care.

So I have no opinion, informed or otherwise, as to whether the jury reached a just verdict or not. Given that it was a murder trial—one of thousands the US has every year—in a state 3,000 miles away, the trial was of no particular importance to me. Yes, even if she was guilty. Not important.

I know at this point I’ll get hate mail, so a few salient points: No, I don’t approve of murdering small children, or anyone else. I’m not a bleeding heart who thinks everyone deserves a second chance, no matter what. I am opposed to the death penalty under all circumstances, but have no problem with life sentences for heinous crimes. I don’t think the mother was innocent because she was white. I know I’ll get these questions because looking over the debates over the verdict, I’ve seen anyone who agrees with the jury, for whatever reason, getting those very questions. I’m assuming that in some minds, failing to disagree with the jury is just as bad as agreeing with it.

What I am interested in is how people are reacting to the trial.

We saw the same anger, shock and confusion in the wake of the OJ double murder trial some twenty years ago. Then, as now, the main contingents were those who trusted the prosecution, and those who did not. I tend to be in the “did not” camp.

I was trying to ignore that trial, and actually had to work at it, since the coverage was so much more pervasive. I was dismayed to see Ted Koppel giving the trial more coverage than he had the Falklands War or Glasnost and the fall of the Soviet Union, two events that were far more important than some washed up football player and his dead wife.

News flash: a story isn’t important just because cable news talks about it endlessly. In fact, that’s usually a sign that it’s not important. It’s not important if Nancy Gracie covers it, and in fact, not even if Ted Koppel does, although he used to cover important stories.

Nor does it matter to the jury what the cable people think of the defendant. If the jury is doing their job properly, then they aren’t basing their verdict on how likable the defendant is, or how lurid the crimes supposedly were. The judge is the one who has to weigh the mitigating or aggravating factors, not Nancy Gracie.

So: that’s why I don’t know whether the jury decision was just, or why I don’t think it particularly matters.

How people reacted matters.

A lot of people have an infantile attitude toward justice. For them, the mere fact that the cops arrested you is, in itself, solid evidence of guilt. The cops don’t arrest innocent people, and if they do, they recognize their mistake immediately and promptly release the person with profuse apologies and perhaps they send the accused a fruit basket with a note saying “No hard feelings?” the next day.

There are people who believe cops are incapable of error. In some police departments, “error” is the best you can hope for. Some cops are incompetent. Some are dishonest. A lot of cops will throw people under the bus rather than admit they fucked up, and in the case of sensational crimes, cops are under a lot of pressure to “catch the perp and lock him up”. If the pressure is intense enough, cops have a way of becoming less fussy as to whether they have “caught” the right person or not; now they have someone they can tell the reporters is “safely behind bars” and no longer a threat to the community. Some cops might be decent enough to hope the court reaches a correct verdict without making them look bad, but in the court, the DA is hoping to run for sheriff next year, and a high profile conviction will be a notch in his belt. The judge knows the teabaggers are running some car salesman for his office who they hope will be a good hangin’ judge, and the judge knows that now is a good time to appear “tough on crime”. In the meantime, the people who are supposed to guide the rest of us through this abattoir of a legal system hold as a religious conviction that “If it bleeds it leads” and lurid is better than dull explanations.

So the whole system is politicized, from the cops to the court officials to the media covering the cases, and it’s no wonder the public has a skewed view of the justice system. And this is a public that believes fervently that justice must prevail in the end, which translates to making sure the shifty-looking guy gets his ass planted in jail for fifty years.

Defendants tend to be people who aren’t at their best in court. If you’ve ever contested a speeding ticket, then you know how nervous you feel, and you suspect that the judge has a long list of excuses he’s heard, and he’s eying you and wondering which boxes he’ll be checking off this time. You’re going to look shifty. Off with your head!

Guilty? Buddy, you were accused of doing 35 in a 25 zone! Cops don’t make mistakes!

I didn’t read any of the journalism coverage of the trial, but I was interested in what the blog sections and news groups had to say.

A lot were livid at the jury, and I was amused to note that a few of those people were staunch defenders of the doctrine of jury nullification, the belief that the jury could deliberately disregard evidence or applicable law in search of a higher “justice”. Apparently this acquittal wasn’t the higher “justice” they had in mind.

One blogger had a particularly revealing remark: “You liberals are disgusting. You want a motive in a premeditated murder case.”

Well, yes, that would be nice. And I would hope a lot of moderates and conservatives feel the same way. Motive is pretty much central to establishing premeditation, after all.

It plays a big role in a situation where it’s not clear that a murder even actually occurred. At that point, the prosecution has to show the court that the supposed victim didn’t just run off to some place that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the US, but that someone wanted him dead, and had the means and opportunity. It’s not an undue burden to demand that the prosecution give evidence of motive as a means of establishing that a) it really was a murder rather than a disappearance, and that b) the accused wanted the victim dead and could do so. In fact, the legal system, when it’s working properly, sort of insists on it.

A lot of people are upset that someone they strongly believe is guilty got away with it, and while I can understand the sense of outrage, I can’t help but wonder how that’s worse than finding someone guilty of a crime who in fact did not commit it. Over the past decade, over 100 people on death row have been released because evidence emerged that proved beyond any reasonable doubt that they did not commit the crimes they were on death row for. There’s strong reason to believe that Texas executed a man even though they were in possession of evidence that proved he didn’t commit the crime, and Governor Perry, rumored to be considering a run for the presidency, blocked an investigation into the execution that he personally signed off on.

To me, that’s far worse than failing to secure a conviction in a trial that Nancy Gracie thinks is important. We know that over a hundred people were sentenced to death unjustly, and we pretty much have to assume that more died at the hands of a justice system that failed them and failed the people it was supposed to protect. Remember, in all those cases, not only did an innocent man go to death row, but the guilty party got away with it.

So how is it that this doesn’t provoke the outrage that the Anthony verdict has? Just because Nancy Gracie was covering it? I wish I could say that people had more brains then that, but it appears not to be the case.

I don’t know what the rights and wrongs are in the Anthony case. The system has failed that little girl, even if it’s not clear at what points and in what ways the failure occurred.

But if the people who are howling that justice failed because of libruls or too many rules or coddling defendants really want to find out who failed that little girl, they need only look in the mirror.

By demanding that justice be replaced with infantile revenge fantasies that they also call “Justice”, they are not only failing that little girl, but all of us. You never obtain justice by throwing out fairness or presumption of innocence. When you do that, you just assure that more innocent people die in American Gulags, while guilty men go free.

When an innocent dies in prison, it isn’t because of a woman with dubious parenting skills three thousand miles away.

It’s because of you.


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