The storm of outrage over the verdict in the Casey Anthony murder trial was to be expected. A little girl, Caylee Anthony, lost her life, seemingly to murder, and nothing has been done to right this most awful of wrongs. Even worse, it is very hard to believe that the mother, Casey Anthony, is “not guilty.” While her daughter was supposedly missing, she was busy drinking and partying, as well as acquiring a cheery tattoo describing her “beautiful life.”
With the case having been given huge amounts of media coverage, it’s understandable that the Facebook walls and Twitter “tweets” of a lot of Americans are burning with indignation that Casey is going to walk (she was exonerated of everything except lying to the police).
But while Casey Anthony’s actions certainly do not exemplify fine parenting, they do not prove her a murderer. Nor does the fact that she seems so much like a cold-blooded killer. For her to be convicted and sentenced, the burden of proof was on the State of Florida. It was up to them to show the jury beyond a shadow of a doubt that Casey Anthony murdered her daughter.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, if Casey did not commit the crime), the prosecution didn’t do it. They weren’t able to. And this is what’s important in the verdict: It’s far better that a guilty Casey be freed than an innocent one be imprisoned. Or to go even further, it’s better that Casey go free, even if she did commit the crime, if it cannot be proven. This is the American legal system, the one we’ve had for more than 235 years. It’s far from perfect, but it must be protected.
What are the alternatives?
A system where the accused bears the burden of proving innocence is the first alternative. But in that situation, the state or anyone else – perhaps that mean-spirited neighbor who has never forgiven you for walking on his flowerbed – can accuse you of anything they want, and if you can’t prove you didn’t do it, either because you’re too poor to afford a decent lawyer or events simply don’t work out in your favor, your neighbor might delight in a front-row seat to your execution.
The other alternative is to leave it up to the general public watching TV, reading the blogs, and so on. In such a system, Casey Anthony would surely have been convicted and probably quickly executed. But a crowd gripped by emotion is hardly likely or able to know and weigh the intricacies of a criminal case the way a jury is expected to. A few years ago, a pediatrician in England was nearly lynched by townspeople who thought that he was behind a spate of child murders. Why? They mixed up the meanings of the words “pediatrician” and “pedophile.”
Neither one of these two alternatives seem quite palatable, as no one wants to live in a society where they can be accused of a crime they didn’t commit and executed or burnt by an angry mob that doesn’t understand the difference between children’s health care and child rape.
The drafters of our Constitution, who were worried about both outcomes, devised the current system. While it’s far from perfect, it is comforting to know that the jurors were calm and collected enough to sit and evaluate the facts, and to focus on the specific question: Did the state prove murder? And while they were surely as horrified by Casey Anthony’s (alleged) actions as anyone else, they returned a “not guilty” verdict.
This isn’t always the case. Even if Casey had seemed less like a cold-blooded killer, but her skin was a few shades darker, she may have been convicted, according to statistics. And if she was not able to afford such an able team of attorneys, the state would have likely walked over her. Still, these facts speak to more vigilance on the part of the rights of the defendant, not less.
There is something troubling in the way that the whole media spectacle has been handled. Suppose for a moment that in fact Casey Anthony did not murder her own daughter: Would it matter? She’s already been convicted in the eyes of the public and is never likely to return to the anonymity in which most people live, never appreciated until an unwelcome wave of publicity shatters it. Anthony’s name will always be associated with the murder of her daughter.
For the record, your author doesn’t shed any tears for Ms. Anthony. Nonetheless, the verdict was the least possible evil, given that the state failed to produce compelling evidence. And while watching Anthony give television interviews and make lots of money writing a book – perhaps entitled If I Did Murder My Own Daughter (a la O. J. Simpson) – will be infuriating, it won’t be as troubling as the thought of a weakening of the protections for the innocent in the American justice system.