I actually heard trained professional journalists saying things like this: “Many people believe that Casey Anthony literally got away with murder, including this reporter.
Julie Chen, news anchor on the CBS daytime series The Talk and wife of CBS president and CEO Les Moonves, broke into tears when she reported the verdict. She couldn’t continue with the newscast, so the regular panelists helped her out, all agreeing that her reaction was justified.
The usual things that you write about when you have an unpopular verdict are timeless. They haven’t changed for a hundred years. I guess I need to put them down here, since very few other journalists have pointed them out since the verdict, but it goes like this:
1. The American system is set up so that we would rather see the occasional guilty person go free than a single innocent person be punished.
2. “Reasonable doubt” is a legal concept requiring acquittal. As soon as the reasonable-doubt standard is reached, the defendant must go free.
3. Juries are always instructed not to expose themselves to, or be influenced by, anything that’s not introduced into evidence. In this case Judge Belvin Perry did an outstanding job of keeping the jury totally immune from the media circus, the street circus, and the Nancy Grace Scolding Schoolmarm Circus. In other eras Judge Perry would be getting back-slapped by his colleagues for pulling off the impossible, because there wasn’t a single spot on that jury, not even an alternate.
4. “Not guilty” does not mean innocent. “Innocent” is a concept for theologians, and most of them have said it doesn’t exist anyway.
5. Juries don’t vote guilty in a death-penalty case unless all questions have been answered. They hate ambiguity and loose ends. Don’t knock this unless you’ve been there.
There’s always a rabble, and there’s almost always a feeling on the public’s part that the jury got it wrong. This happens even when the public agrees with the verdict. The jury got one thing right but missed three others. The verdict is correct but the sentence is too light. The sentence is correct but it’s for the wrong reasons.
That’s why the public doesn’t get to decide.
If we were in Russia, the state could appeal the acquittal. If we were in France, there would be secret ways an acquittal could have been avoided. If we were in many other countries around the world, you could bribe some people and cause a retrial.
And I’m hearing all the “buts.” I know about the “buts.” But what about her claim that her child was kidnapped by Zanny the Nanny? But what about the duct tape? But what about all Casey’s lies about her job? But what about the smell of death in the trunk? But what about the chloroform Google search? But what about that “Bella Vita” tattoo? But what about her lies about Caylee’s paternity? But what about the fact that she was partying during the months Caylee was missing?
I know all this. So does the jury. The jury is not wrong. The way it works here, the verdict is the verdict. It can’t be wrong; it’s the verdict. I’ve explained this all my life in various contexts, but never before have I thought it was necessary to explain it to reporters, much less to reporters who are also lawyers, much less to a new reporter/lawyer mutant species called Nancy Grace.
What’s going on here is a return to the law that was practiced in pre-Christian medieval Europe when a defendant’s fate was placed in the hands of the Avenging Kinsman. The dead person’s Avenging Kinsman—the wife, the husband, the mother, the father, the guy who won the paternity suit so he could file wrongful death—was allowed to kill the offender with his own hands, usually after a number of interested locals (those people on the Orange County Courthouse steps) had gathered evidence and presented it as fact. This was so there would be exactly one dead person on each side of that ledger in our minds that keeps track of who might have “gotten away with murder.” If the ledger is askew, you end up with Hatfield-McCoy cycles of revenge killing.
Fortunately in the 15th century the Brits kicked the Avenging Kinsman out of the courtroom and said henceforth we would have a prosecutor representing the state’s interests. The jury would no longer be the people on the courthouse steps who have an express interest in the trial; it would be their opposite—people who knew nothing about the case at all. In other words, they wiped out “victim’s rights.” The victim’s feelings were something for a priest or a psychiatrist, but not for a courtroom.
What we didn’t realize is that Nancy Grace would enroll at the Hildegard of Bingen School of Law sometime in the late 20th century and bring it all back.
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