e. magill's                        

The Unapologetic Geek

MAIN LIST        

The Casey Anthony Verdict: A Triumph for the American Legal System

Casey Anthony
I wonder what she thought of the O.J. verdict

I was in high school when O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of murder by a jury of his peers, and I vividly remember being disturbed by the reaction of those around me, a reaction that could best be described as bloodthirsty. At the time, I wrote it off as a quirk of history, an alignment of events, popular culture, and the freshness of the 24-hour news cycle that couldn't possibly occur twice. O.J. Simpson was a black celebrity on trial for murdering his white ex-wife, so there were plenty of reasons for people to get caught up in it, to get emotional, and to be susceptable to confirmation bias when trying to look at the case dispassionately. I meekly explained to anybody who asked that I thought the verdict was the right one, because in American courts, a person is innocent until proven guilty, O.J. wasn't definitively proven guilty, and it is stupid (in the absence of convincingly untarnished evidence) to proclaim that anyone can know with 100% certainty what happened in a time and place where nobody but murderer and victim were present. People loudly told me I was wrong to feel this way, so for the most part, I kept my mouth shut. After all, it probably wouldn't happen again.

Of course, anybody who has turned on a television in the last week knows that it has happened again. When the Casey Anthony case started making headlines and dominating news coverage across the board, I was initially confused as to why it deserved so much attention. Sure, it's a disturbing story about a creepy and apparently absentee parent and her dead two-year-old daughter, and that kind of messed up story always manages to sneak into the papers from time to time. But the Casey Anthony case had none of the elements that made the O.J. trial so sensational; there was no racial element, no celebrity involved, and any novelty the 24-hour news cycle may have had wore off by the time 9/11 happened. My confusion quickly morphed into irritation. I was getting really tired of hearing about Casey Anthony. It was annoying that the networks started obsessing over every tiny little detail, having long panel debates about the case, and showing live courtroom coverage instead of spending time on any of the other, far more important things going on in the world.

A woman outside the courtroom accusing the jury of murder
As we all know, jurors are "gulity" until proven innocent

Then my wife reminded me that cases like this offer an educational opportunity, a demonstration of how the legal system actually works. We were at a hotel, and there was a parent talking about it with her adolescent children. In that sense, I can appreciate what the Casey Anthony trial represents. However, now that the jury has rendered its verdict, it seems most of us have failed to grasp one of the core principles of the American legal system. Once again, people seem to be ignoring the fact that, in this country, people are innocent until proven guilty. A recent USA Today/Gallop poll found that 64% of Americans think that Casey Anthony is guilty of murdering her daughter. Many of the jurors in the case--who have thankfully remained anonymous--fear the outrage of the general public. One of those jurors, juror no. 12, sixty years old, quit her job at Publix and moved across the country because she was afraid for her life.

There is also a predictable amount of vitriole coming from editorialists, commentators, and celebrities. Nancy Grace, probably the most visible television personality covering the case, opined over the verdict, "the devil is dancing tonight." The likes of Kim Cardashian, Star Jones, Warren Sapp, Ann Coulter, Carson Daly, Mandy Moore, Fred Savage, Ashton Kutcher, and Sharon Osborn all expressed outrage on Twitter. On The Talk, anchor Julie Chen broke into tears over the result and had to be assisted by her co-hosts. Though some commentators have been urging calm, the vast majority out there are telling us we should be deeply troubled over this "miscarriage of justice," just as we were supposed to be over the O.J. trial.

And then there's people calling for a "Caylee's Law," which would make it a crime for a parent to fail to report that his or her child is missing within a certain amount of time. Some claim that a law such as this would have prevented Caylee Anthony's death, but that's probably not true. First, we don't know what caused Caylee's death; second, there is no evidence that Caylee could have been rescued had police known she was missing sooner; and third, if Casey Anthony killed her daughter, she obviously wouldn't heed a lesser law about reporting her daughter missing. What the call for Caylee's Law is all about, then, is a transparent desire for revenge. We just want to be able to find her guilty of something more, even though she was found guilty of lying to the police.

I'm not trying to argue that Casey Anthony didn't kill her daughter. The simple fact is that I do not know if she did, because I was not there (and neither were you). Therefore, in order for me to argue that Casey Anthony is guilty, it needs to be proven. Sure, she acts very suspiciously and the various stories that have been offered in her defense are fishy as Hell, but in this country, we do not convict people for acting suspicious or looking guilty. By definition, therefore, Casey Anthony is innocent of murder and will soon be a free woman.

Casey Anthony looking creepy
If we could convict people for looking creepy, she'd be sitting in the electric chair by now

The fact that people are outraged at the jury doesn't bode well for Casey Anthony's freedom, however, and it is certain that any chance she has of a normal life is ostensibly over. It was arguably over once her daughter died, but now that she is going to be hounded by people until the day she dies, it is much worse. Just consider, for a brief moment, what that means if she didn't, in fact, have anything to do with her daughter's death. I'm not saying it's plausible; I'm simply asking you to consider the possibility. That is terrifying, because even though she was granted freedom by the courts, the general public is going to treat her as though she were a child murderer. It will be many years before she meets anyone who doesn't know who she is.

In the meantime, she's going to have to deal with more lawsuits and courtrooms, because anybody with a bone to pick is looking for a reason to press charges. For example, a woman named Zenaida Fernandez-Gonzalez, who claims she has never met Casey Anthony, has filed a defamation suit against her for alleging that Caylee had been left with a babysitter named Zenaida Fernandez-Gonzalez. Additionally, Tim Miller, the head of a group called Texas Equusearch, is contemplating filing a suit against the Anthony family for wasting the company's time by hiring it to search for Caylee. This is likely just the beginning of Casey Anthony's post-trial legal troubles.

A lot of people, intent on finding a reason for the verdict aside from the painfully obvious one, are blaming CSI and similar television shows for giving people the impression that evidence is always available and always rock solid. This supposed phenomenon even has a name, the "CSI effect," but I don't buy it. If people put that much stock in the fictional worlds of these shows, they'd probably think that Casey is innocent. Remember, in CSI, the most obvious choice is always--always--wrong. If the killer were the creepy guy standing over the body with the bloody knife, for example, it would make for a pretty short and boring episode. Therefore, since Casey Anthony seems pretty damn guilty by superficial appearances, she would be clearly innocent if we were living in the CSI universe. If we were all brainwashed by CSI, I'm sure we'd be debating which seemingly irrelevant player in all this is the real killer, nodding our heads in agreement when somebody says, "I know it's not Casey, because that would just be too obvious."

Nancy Grace and Casey Anthony
My money would be on Nancy Grace

I think that's what gets me about all this. We are absolutely willing to believe that events can align themselves in such a way to frame an innocent person for murder, as long as it's fictional. In real life, we prejudge the crap out of every news story within the first 30 seconds of it being reported and rarely ever change our minds. I'm sure you're probably thinking, "Yeah, real life is nothing like television, so that's a good thing," but you're probably also forgetting the law of large numbers. The Casey Anthony case is hardly unique, even though it randomly got the attention of newscasters everywhere. Sadly, there are at least dozens of similar cases going on around the country every single year. It is likely, therefore, that in at least one out of every hundred of those cases, a seemingly guilty person is actually being framed by crazy coincidences like those found in every episode of CSI.

This is one of the reasons--though not the only one--we have the innocent until proven guilty rule. We'd rather set 99 guilty people free than sentence one innocent person to death. I, for one, agree with this principle and think justice was absolutely served in the Casey Anthony case. It's not fair that her life is over anyway. It's not fair that people have prejudged her and will never forgive her for doing something she is legally innocent of. America should be better than that, but the disgusting fact is that we're not. I will not keep quiet this time, and I will not assume that this is an isolated incident. I know better now. This is bound to happen again, and it is my arguably delusional hope the American public will be a little more mature about it next time.

-e. magill 7/12/2011

  • Modern Witch-Hunts: When Skeptics Become "Deniers"
  • The Problem with Balance: Why Both Sides is a Bad Strategy
  • Internet Karma, Hacktivism, and the New Paradigm