Phil-osophically Speaking: July 14, 2011

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Casey Anthony – Blind Justice?

It seemed like a normal afternoon at work when suddenly the peace was shattered by shrieks coming from the secretary pool outside my office: “I can’t believe it,” “How could this happen?” and “They’re idiots!” were some of the comments that violently ricocheted about the room like a ball ratcheting up a high score in a pinball machine. The commotion, I soon discovered, resulted from hearing that after an improbably brief 10 hours of deliberation the Casey Anthony jury had reached a verdict of not guilty of capital murder, aggravated child abuse, and aggravated manslaughter of a child. In the end, Anthony was convicted of just four misdemeanors of misleading law enforcement.

One woman in the secretary pool, a mother of a young girl, was near in tears, angrily denouncing the verdict until her voice reached a lofty rage by bitterly noting that “there were seven women on that jury.” It seemed to her that women, more specifically mothers, had failed their children. This scene of combustible emotion was played out in a host of domestic and public scenes throughout the country. There was no denying the raw emotion the verdict generated and I haven’t seen its like since O.J. Simpson was exonerated in a Los Angeles courtroom more than a decade and a half ago.

“Justice, it is justice thou shalt pursue,” says the Bible and it’s true that the human heart is forever anchored to such an aspiration. But was justice done in this case? With no disrespect intended to our jury system, arguably the best in the world, I don’t think so. At best the verdict in this case should have echoed the Scottish judicial system, which pronounces, “not proven” instead of “not guilty.” Nevertheless, one bad verdict, whatever the wording, does not indict an entire system.

That Casey Anthony was guilty, in some measure, I believed was beyond a reasonable doubt. True, there was no forensic evidence to base a conviction upon but the circumstantial case marshaled by the prosecution was fairly overwhelming. About 10 years ago, I was a juror on a murder trial where the evidence was completely circumstantial and we convicted the defendant by connecting the dots. It was an agonizing decision and one in which there was ferocious debate. But in the end, we all concluded that the defendant was indeed guilty.  Some have postulated that because of all these crime shows on television, with their super-sophisticated forensic techniques to catch the murderer, expectations of proof have been unreasonably elevated for the prosecution. I hope this is not true because circumstantial evidence is, in many instances, the sine qua non in trying a criminal case. It is not required that a motive be established since it is enough to prove a defendant committed the murder without proving they were capable of it. While it’s true that the remains of Casey’s daughter, Caylee, were so degraded lying in a swamp for more than a month that neither DNA nor fingerprints could be ascertained, there have been many cases where the body of the victim was never even found and the defendant had been found guilty.   

Without retrying the case, I don’t know how the jury could have concluded that there was not a dead body in the trunk of that car, that the duct tape was apparently incidental to the case, and that there was an accidental drowning without a shred of evidence to substantiate it. Nor could they have missed (or could they?) that the obscene sexual abuse charges made against Casey’s father is the usual tactic employed to explain why a defendant committed such a heinous crime. Nor could they have construed (or could they?) that Casey’s hard partying for 31 days after her daughter had gone missing or accidentally drowned, does not indicate foul play since grief can be expressed in unusual ways.

The famed defense attorney Alan Dershowitz has argued that a criminal trial is never about seeking justice for the victim, otherwise a guilty verdict could be rendered since only one person is on trial. Frankly, I fail to see how one thing must necessarily lead to the other. Of course criminal trials are, above all else, conducted to establish proof beyond a reasonable doubt but it is also about seeking justice for the victim even if the proof is not sufficient to convince a jury to convict. Dershowitz is on more solid ground when he says that acquittal, in such a case, is not the same as a morally just result.

The daunting and time-honored standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” is subject to interpretation but I think it is fair to conclude that it is a standard beyond probable but a little less than airtight certain since virtually nothing can be absolutely certain. When the DNA evidence at the O.J. Simpson trial indicated that the chances of another person other than he was at the crime scene and when that fact is combined with considerable circumstantial evidence that should qualify as beyond a “reasonable doubt” even if it is still technically less than 100 percent certain.

The first murder case I recall was Alice Crimmons, whose trial took place sometime in the mid to late 1960s. Crimmons, who lived in Queens, was separated from her husband when her two children were found dead near her apartment. She was a woman of great physical allure and, like Casey Anthony, lived a rambunctious nightlife of nearly unrestrained sexuality. Law enforcement, again like Casey Anthony, thought Crimmons was cold-blooded and guilty as sin. But in the end they could not make the double homicide charges stick. Perhaps there is something to what a friend once told me about good-looking people tending to be found innocent.

Three years after the death of little Caylee Anthony, 36 months of building a case and six weeks of trial it all boiled down to 12 people and 10 hours. In the eyes of the law, the case is unsolved as yet another life was snuffed out like a candle without anyone being held accountable. It shouldn’t have happened that way and we should be free to say that supporting the jury system does not mean we have to deify it as some infallible institution. It’s not unknown for a jury to make emotional connections with a young and pretty defendant, so easy for them to see the living and forget the dead, so natural to look upon the youthful face of Casey Anthony and ask is this really the face of evil? That justice is blind can be understood in more ways than one. But what is done is done and the clock cannot be turned back. Life goes on, as it must, and we are left to wonder what it all means.

While we need to make our peace with the heartbreaking unfairness of our world we must remember that eternal justice is like the sea – you can make out the bottom near the shore but not in the great, mysterious deep where it surely abides and patiently waits. The long run, you see, is longer than we can ever imagine.

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