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Wednesday, July 06, 2011

A post about Casey Anthony? Seriously?

Thanks to Dan and the others for having me back. Having taken an extended Fourth-of-July holiday from my blogging responsibilities, I'm now delighted to be back, and I look forward to sharing a barrage of half-baked ideas, as usual.  

I can't resist making my first post about the Casey Anthony trial. (For those of you who have been living under a rock, this is the Florida murder trial of a young woman for allegedly killing her toddler daughter.) Not because I have been following the case or anxiously awaiting the verdict -- I haven't -- and not because I'm  an expert in criminal law -- I'm not. But I'm always amazed at the popular outrage that flows when such a closely-watched case, in which the media and popular opinion have already judged the defendant guilty, results in a not-guilty verdict (see, e.g., OJ Simpson).

Again, to be clear, I haven't followed this case and pretty much have no opinion about the outcome -- other than that the truth of the matter, whatever it is, is undeniably tragic. But what is underlying this popular outrage? After all, our criminal cases are decided by juries of ordinary people, (usually) nonlawyers, not elite technocrats in some ivory tower. If those individuals reached a not-guilty verdict after hearing all the evidence, how is it that so many people can be absolutely convinced they were wrong? Is it simply the case that it's easy to sit back and judge from in front of one's TV but not when another person's actual life and liberty are on the line? Or do they think that the defense lawyers played some dirty tricks? Or perhaps just that the jurors were unreasonable and therefore deeply mistaken? Anyone have any armchair psychologizing about this armchair judging?


Posted by Jessie Hill on July 6, 2011 at 09:37 AM | Permalink


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I disagree with Asher's assessment - I strongly suspect these jurors misunderstood what 'reasonable doubt' entails. And/or the prosecution did a horrible job of framing the burden.

I saw the lead prosecutor on TV the next day saying how 'proud' he was of the job they did... What a hack. He 'retired' after the trial - if I were the DA, he wouldn't have had that luxory.

'Circumstantial' evidence has convicted many a man and woman on FAR less... Either: the prosecution was incompetent and foolhardy in overcharging, the jury was deluded into thinking there needs to be CSI-like 'smoking gun' evidence, or - most likely - both.

The whole thing was a total mockery of criminal justice.

Posted by: WayneLaw Student | Jul 8, 2011 11:47:59 AM

All good thoughts - thanks! An interesting contrast between "popular criminal law" and doctrinal criminal law, or something like that.

Posted by: Jessie Hill | Jul 7, 2011 10:09:51 AM

Actually, this case, to me, seems to illustrate a different phenomenon - the public's failing to understand proof beyond a reasonable doubt. I don't believe the reaction to the verdict is the result of the public's being privy to a great deal of evidence that wasn't admitted at trial. Rather, the public just can't understand how someone who probably committed murder could be acquitted. Of course, some of the jurors addressed this today, saying that they too believe Anthony did it but that there just wasn't quite enough proof.

Posted by: Asher | Jul 6, 2011 10:42:21 PM

I was ready to write a long comment about how cases like this demonstrate the ability of our jury system to civilize ordinary people and make them worthy of judging their peers. But "4th Year" got there before me, so in short I concur.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Jul 6, 2011 8:12:25 PM

I think the case stands as a single anecdote showing that our system of criminal justice (at least at the trial level) works as designed. When information to jurors is controlled by the rules of evidence and other constraints, and when those same jurors are not subjected to the input of the media, they make decisions based on logic and the rule of law rather than passion and bias.

The popular outrage, by contrast, is fueled by onlookers who: (1) receive information to which jurors are not privy (e.g. DV evidence in OJ Simpson case); and (2) have received most of their information through the filter of the media. Because the media in this case had an interest in portraying the defendant as guilty (to make a juicier story), it repeatedly filtered the information to the masses in a way consistent with guilt and inconsistent with innocence.

When the jury, properly constrained by the rules of evidence and unbiased by the media, made a decision contrary to the popular view, the onlookers could not fathom how the jury could overlook facts x,y, and z, (none of which the jury ever heard) or how the jury could not be swayed by certain rhetorical points made in the media (each of which would be considered improper argument in trial).

In short, I think it all goes to show the vast difference between trial by media and trial by jury.

Posted by: 4thYrLawProf | Jul 6, 2011 11:12:49 AM

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