July 05, 2011

Armchair Jurors

Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.

—Gandalf, in "The Fellowship of the Ring" by J.R.R. Tolkien

Much of the nation today was transfixed by the "not guilty" verdict in the Casey Anthony murder trial. Anthony was accused of murdering her two year-old daughter, Caylee, and disposing of her body in the woods. Some rather damning evidence was presented, including photos of Casey shopping and partying during the month when Casey was missing—an absence unreported to authorities, or even friends or family members. Casey was also caught in several significant lies to police (she was found guilty of four misdemeanor counts of making false statements for her more egregious lies). In the court of public opinion, a "guilty" verdict was inevitable, and the only major question was whether the jury would find Casey guilty of a capital offense, leading to a death penalty sentencing trial.

Personally, I was only dimly aware this trial was occurring, and then only because of the occasional Twitter post from someone following the trial. I didn't watch a minute of testimony. I did see the first 30 minutes or so of the defense closing argument because the significant other was running the remote over the weekend. Frankly, I wasn't particularly impressed by Jose Baez' performance, which seemed to hit good points, then bury them with extraneous asides. The reporting I saw online as the jury began deliberations suggested the prosecution had a strong case, but also had some holes to fill; in particular, the lack of evidence of cause and time of death seemed a major hurdle to a capital murder conviction. Still, I expected a "guilty" verdict for murder or manslaughter.

To say the "not guilty" verdict shocked the public is an understatement. Even several hours after the verdict, the Twitter hashtag #caseyanthonyverdict was the top "trending topic", with scores of new posts every few seconds. Tweets were running at least 50-1 in opposition to the verdict. Many posters had some variation on the theme that the jurors were "stupid", "morons", or "idiots" (see here, here, here, here, and here for a sampling pulled from the stream when I arrived home from the office). Racial themes were common, with some posters claiming Anthony was acquitted largely because she was white, with other posters drawing parallels to the O.J. Simpson and Michael Vick cases. Plenty of posters were even more vicious:

jury = stupid redneck hillbillies


These jurors should be removed from society


I want ALL of those 12 unconvinced jurors to hire Casey as a nanny for their children/grandchildren.

@amycapetta (ironically sporting a "NOH8" logo on her profile picture)

Maybe all the jurors threw one of their children's dead body's in the trunk of their cars? #caseyanthonyverdict


And in a rare thematic triptych Tweet:

Tomorrow CNN will announce that all the Jurors have Down Syndrome


Tomorrow CNN will announce that the Jurors were ALL ON CRACK this morning


Tomorrow CNN will announce that the Jurors are all SHEPARDS for the DEVIL


Whether one agrees or disagrees with the jury's verdict, the jury deserves public respect, not ridicule. The jury was faced with an incredibly difficult job. Jurors were shut away from their homes, their communities, their families and friends for seven weeks of trial. Jurors were instructed to ignore the maelstrom of press coverage engulfing the trial. Jurors were asked to set aside all emotion and preconceptions while they sat in judgment on a woman accused of murdering her young daughter. Jurors had to sift through conflicting testimony and ambiguous evidence. Most importantly, the jurors were forced to consider whether a fellow citizen should possibly be put to death.

It's easy to sit in the comfort of one's home or office, read snippets of press coverage online or watch a segment of a tabloid "news" show, and say, "Hey, she's a baby killer!" But for the jurors, the decision wasn't some throwaway opinion on a Facebook poll. No, the jurors were faced with one of the weightiest of moral decisions, deciding whether another person should be sent to jail or even executed. The jurors, unlike their public critics, have to live with the consequences of their decision. Quickly, which is morally worse—letting a guilty murderer walk free, or executing (or imprisoning for life) a mother falsely accused of killing her daughter? What if it were your sister or friend sitting in the defendant's chair? How's that bloodlust feel now? [FN1].

Turning trials into public spectacles has a long history in America. In fact, the American press, pundits, and public were armchair quarterbacking every decision by every lawyer, witness, judge, and juror in high-profile cases long before there were even quarterbacks. Maybe Casey Anthony did kill her daughter and the jury made the "wrong" decision; in fact, let's agree that's probably the truth. Nonetheless, even if the jury was wrong, there is absolutely no indication the jurors didn't take their job seriously and do their best to render a verdict they felt was just based on the evidence and the law. [FN2]. Because their vote doesn't matter, armchair jurors find it easy to throw out an opinion on guilt or innocence without hearing all the evidence and arguments, seeing all of the witnesses, and being instructed on the applicable law. It is extremely offensive to see so many people publicly demean the jury's efforts with a dismissive, "How could they be so stupid!" when those critics don't have to face any real life moral consequences if their opinion turns out to have been wrong.

In any system of justice, someone has to serve as the arbiter of criminal guilt or innocence. For better or worse, in America, that role is generally for a jury of common citizens. The alternative—elected or appointed judges—is not inherently superior to the jury system, given that judges are hardly immune from prejudice and bias, and face their own unique set of social and political pressures. It's fair to question the jury's decision on the merits. To question the jury's integrity or intelligence is to question the very foundations of our legal system. Let's give the jurors some respect for doing an important but thankless task


[FN1]  If you think it's rare for people to be falsely convicted in America, spend some time on the Innocence Project website, then let me know what you think.

[FN2]  In my sixteen year legal career, I've tried over a dozen jury trials (all civil), including one that was selected to be presented while observed by the entire first-year law school class at Drake Law School as a practicum. I've also observed all or portions of numerous other trials, and interviewed jurors post-trial for their impressions of the case. It is my experience that jurors take their role seriously and do their best to render a fair decision.


  1. "It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, “whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,” and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever." ~ John Adams

  2. I once was a juror in a trial where we all knew the defendant was guilty as hell ... but the prosecution did not make its case. We easily arrived at a Not Guilty verdict. It was a very unsatisfying, uneasy feeling.

  3. "Much of the nation today was transfixed by..."

    But why?

    Why is this particular dead kid infinitely more interesting to the nation than the other hundreds of children being killed right now, every day, most often by their parents, all over the nation? Every day in every city they are left as collateral at crack houses, pimped out in a trailer for a few dollars, sold for the price of a jug of wine, killed for amusement or because their parents couldn't be bothered with them, or for no particular reason at all as their moms failed to notice they were even around.

    Why might THOSE dead children, all those many kids who died today and those who are going to be killed tomorrow and those killing them right now, be so much less worthy of outrage than this one? Are they less cute? Perhaps. Less white? Sometimes. I know for sure they are definitely less on TV, and for most of them there will be no such outrage or even much notice, and in our magnificent fashionably progressive non-judgemental world there will often be no criminal charges of any sort and very little inconvenience for their killers.

    A little kid is being killed near each and every reader of this blog right now. There will not be film at eleven about it.

  4. Its a damn shame that common sense does not apply to law. She deserves to die based upon the silence of Caylees disappearance alone.
    So many things brought up in this case point to guilt. This hideous woman will walk away from this as a rich woman after the interviews, book and movie deals come her way. Today was a sad day for the legal system and a sad day for Caylee Anthony as there will never be justice for her death and or murder.

  5. I managed to avoid most of the coverage of the trial, but hold pretty fast to one simple opinion. It is better to let 100 murderers walk free than to have one innocent person spend one day in prison.

  6. I'm so glad you wrote something on this. I having been putting my own thoughts together on it, and I was hoping you'd lend your perspective. Excellent points in your post. I followed the trial in similar fashion, which is to say, not much at all.

    I can understand how people want to blame someone here, as you said, the likelihood that she did it is probable, the issue I have is like most things, we as a public seem to assign blame incorrectly in situations like this. The failure for the trial, rests with the prosecution, not the jurors or Casey Anthony. Casey Anthony failed as a mother and as a human being from not reporting it (at the very least).

    The angst is misdirected in the response to the verdict, as the prosecution failed to do it's job (or law enforcement or others involved and that's assuming she was guilty) which was build and present a case that put her in jail, if the evidence showed it. At the very least, someone could have looked at the case objectively and worked a deal out with Anthony (although that may have been offered and then her defense lawyers were absolutely right to reject it).

    It's a shame we lose sight of roles and responsibilities so easily. The jurors are truly the last people that should be blamed for anything here.

  7. While I did NOT follow the case closely, I did review the evidence and view some of the testimony. My wife did the same. After doing so (and BEFORE the verdict was reached), we talked and INDEPENDENTLY determined that the prosecution failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

    To me, the critical issue was not DEFINITIVELY establishing the cause of death. That fact made the defense's argument that Caylee died accidentally at least a credible alternative.

    My wife said there was NO WAY she would convict on capital or even 2nd degree murder, but perhaps would consider negligent homicide.

    Further, had a guilty verdict been rendered, it is my humble opinion that the judge just might have set the verdict aside as a matter of law.