The acquittal in July of Casey Anthony in a first-degree murder case in Florida had the media buzzing about the justice system. Marcia Clark, who was the losing prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson “Trial of the Century” in 1994, and who should know whereof she speaks, opined that juries in capital murder cases (where the defendant could suffer the death penalty) are reluctant to convict unless the evidence is overwhelming.
She stated on one TV talk show that the concept of reasonable doubt — which is the high bar that must be overcome in such cases — has become the escape window that juries can use to justifiably avoid making such a harsh judgment. According to the former L.A. prosecutor, reasonable doubt has become “a reason to doubt”; therefore, defense attorneys have a much easier task than prosecutors, who have the burden of proof.
Whereas the prosecutor must prove the who, how, what, where and why of a murder case to the exclusion of any reasonable doubt, the defense attorneys — as in the Anthony case — may suggest some theories (without having to prove them) in order to provide the jury with (as Clark suggested) a reason to doubt.
Casey Anthony’s daughter Caylee Marie Anthony was nearly three when apparently wrapped in garbage bags and unceremoniously dumped in a swampy wooded area (sometimes called the “pet cemetery”) near her home.
Because Casey failed to notify anyone about her daughter’s disappearance for 31 days and created elaborate lies involving kidnapping by a fictional “Zanny the nanny” when questioned by police, she was charged by Orange County Florida authorities with the murder of her daughter even before the decomposed remains of the child were finally officially discovered on Dec. 11, 2008.
Her acquittal on July 6 provoked a public outcry for justice for Caylee, and dozens of second guesses by legal, psychological, and other experts on various media outlets. The only comments that really count, however, are those proffered by members of the jury.
Several made public comments to the effect that the prosecutors simply did not prove their case (except for the four counts of lying to the police). Furthermore, Judge Perry in his jury instructions had told them they could disregard any or all of the testimony of any witness they felt was not truthful. A key witness was Casey’s father George, who defense attorney Jose Baez contended in his opening statement found the drowned Caylee floating in the backyard pool and railed to his daughter that she would go to jail for allowing the drowning to happen.
Apparently, the defense was successful in painting George as a liar when he said he wasn’t there (and the defense had in opening statement also suggested he had molested his daughter). One juror called him “combative” and “evasive”; however, the jurors apparently gave great credence to George’s alleged statement (as reported by his alleged mistress) that it was an accident that snowballed out of control.
Did the jury decide to take the easy way out because it had been sequestered for six weeks, it was the Fourth of July weekend, and jurors wanted to go home? According to one juror, at one point they were 10 to two for acquittal, and at another point they were six to six for conviction or acquittal on the lesser charge of manslaughter.
Perhaps the jurors who caved in on their opinions had never seen the movie “Twelve Angry Men,” where Henry Fonda as a lone hold-out juror finally convinces the other 11 to acquit a black man wrongly accused of murder?
Dan Abrams, legal commentator for ABC-TV, said the jury should be commended for doing its job. After all, many try to avoid jury duty, and we can’t blame the system when a jury returns a verdict we don’t agree with.
So, whom do we blame?
Defense attorney Baez, whose experience many questioned prior to the trial, said after the trial he agreed with those who said prosecutor Ashton had “overcharged” the defendant and should not have alleged premeditated murder or first degree murder if he couldn’t prove it.
Famed Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, a consultant on several high profile cases, has backed up Baez’s opinion. Did the fact that Ashton planned to retire after this case have anything to do with his decision? It would be a huge feather in the cap of the prosecutor to go out with a win in such a high profile case.
Ashton also introduced groundbreaking testimony from expert witnesses as to the chemical composition of the air from a decomposing body. A win would have established a precedent for such evidence and could have potentially placed this case in law books across the country.
Why didn’t the prosecution indict the defendant for more easily provable offenses: e.g. obstruction of justice and perjury (for having moved a dead body and lied about it)?
According to one Florida statute, perjury during the investigation of a capital murder case is a third-degree felony and carries penalties of up to five years for each count, whereas simply lying to police is a misdemeanor with a maximum punishment of a year in the county jail.
Thus, Judge Perry could have imposed a sentence of up to 20 years for four counts of perjury instead of four years for lying.
The public probably would have grumbled a little but would have been mollified, and the talking heads on TV wouldn’t have had Casey Anthony to kick around anymore. Now that the trial is over (except for various civil suits and media anxiety about Casey’s supposed million-dollar interview) perhaps we could get back to less controversial issues, like the state of the U.S. economy and peace in the Middle East.
Dan Norvell retired to Danville after a career in educational publishing (which included a stint with a law book publisher) and more than 20 years working and traveling overseas.