Murder is awful, but there is something even more deeply disturbing when the victim is a child. Add to this that the accused killer was the child’s mother, and the revulsion increases to the point of nausea. And one can’t help but gag when reading reports of jail letters by Casey Anthony, the mother who was released yesterday after three years in prison, after a jury earlier this month found the prosecution had not proved its case. According to the reports, she glibly discussed with a fellow inmate how awful it was that she could not obtain routine pedicures, and pondered how much of a makeover she should get once she was released from jail.
Even if she didn’t murder her child, the callousness is disturbing. One would think that a mother who – as the defense’s story goes – accidentally drowned her child and then covered it up for more than a month would show some sign of remorse or sorrow. In fact, it’s hard to determine what would be more of a relief for the public: proof that the drowning really was an accident, combined with the defendant’s extreme lack of compassion – or a confession from Ms. Anthony, combined with some show of remorse. In the first scenario, we can drop the image of a mother killing her own child. In the latter, there would be an iota of human compassion displayed by someone in the whole revolting affair.
We still don’t know whether or not Casey Anthony killed her own child, even though it seems likely she did. But as I argued earlier, the jury verdict showed that the principles of our legal system still held up: We as a nation have agreed in theory that it’s better to free a few criminals, no matter how egregious their crimes, than to jail the innocent. Still, we can and should always try not to let child-killers walk. So what to do?
The most obvious fix to come out of this case is the proposed “Caylee’s Law,” which would make it a criminal offense to wait to report a missing child. If some future Casey Anthony commits the same acts, even if she’s found not guilty of murder, she could be convicted and jailed for the coverup of a missing child.
Also important is constantly improving forensic science. Three-year-old Caylee Anthony was found in the woods only after a month, and decomposition had taken its course. With current science, it was impossible even to show how the child died. Even with all the circumstantial evidence, convicting someone of murder without even being able to prove how the murder occurred, or even that it was foul play at all, is nearly impossible.
The prosecution argued that Anthony put the corpse of her daughter into the trunk of her car. As evidence, the state called Dr. Arpad Vass, who invented a method to determine whether decomposition took place in a given area. He said that his tests – based on air and fabric samples from the trunk – showed that a corpse had decomposed in the Anthony car. Unfortunately, Vass owns a patent on the test, it has never been used in a murder trial before and it still isn’t very well tested. Consequently, the defense was able to argue that this was “junk science.”
Clearly, if we want to remove killers from society without overturning the vital presumption of innocence, there must be a national focus on bettering the scientific tools of criminal investigation. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences argued, “A congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council finds serious deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system and calls for major reforms and new research. Rigorous and mandatory certification programs for forensic scientists are currently lacking, the report says, as are strong standards and protocols for analyzing and reporting on evidence.”
Casey Anthony is free. Maybe that’s good. Maybe she didn’t actually kill her daughter. It might be hard for many people to believe, but there was no other choice before the jury. Yet we can’t help but be incensed that she’s planning to write a book and searching for the highest-paying news outlet to tell her story. Still, it is true: The system is, as Benjamin Franklin said of democracy, the worst, except for everything else.
But it can be improved.