July 05, 2011
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.