July 6 2011

Just Because it is Legal Does Not Mean it is Right

Anna Rittgers

My father called me this morning, and his reaction to the Casey Anthony verdict was similar to those of Charlotte’s and Julie’s.   At one point during our long conversation, my dad told me, “I’m tired of hearing all you lawyers saying that the justice system worked.  It didn’t work—the jurors were wrong.” 

Here’s how I explained myself:

One of the things that made the first year of law school so difficult for me was learning to accept that justice in the moral and metaphysical sense is not the goal of “justice” in the American criminal justice system.  Our system exists to protect  the accused.  Most of the time, justice (in both the moral and the legal sense) is served.  But in our imperfect system, “justice” may occasionally result in evil winning.   I certainly don't think this is morally right, but in our legal system, that is what sometimes happens.  It is particularly awful when the result is that an innocent child's death will go unpunished.  We have decided as a nation that this the price we may have to pay for a justice system whose goal is to prevent innocent people from serving time for a crime they didn’t commit (which still happens more often than you would believe could be possible in modern times).   

Do I think Casey was responsible for her daughter’s death?  Absolutely.   But it takes more than “I think they did it” to convict someone of a crime.  The standard is “did the prosecution prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this person committed the crime alleged by the State?”  I fault the prosecution’s decision to try this as a capital murder case.  Had they simply charged her with manslaughter or aggravated child neglect to begin with, the evidence they possessed supported those charges beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, it appears that the jury soured on the prosecution’s case entirely.  And the consequence is that tomorrow, Casey will probably leave jail as a free woman. 

Julie may have a point about the jurors just being ready to go home. But I think the prosecutors deserve criticism for overreaching and trying Casey Anthony for first degree murder with the penalty of death—a high hurdle, considering the actual evidence they presented.  Maybe this should be a lesson for prosecutors: instead of taking a chance and seeking the harshest penalty possible, just bring charges that the evidence readily supports.

The prosecutors had to prove not only that Caylee’s death was intentional and at the hands of Casey, but they also had to prove that Casey planned from the get go to murder her daughter. The prosecution had plenty of evidence that Casey was a liar who was more concerned about partying and sleeping around than being a mom.  Her actions show that she is reckless and irresponsible, and her child certainly suffered as a result of Casey's actions.  The circumstantial evidence (her failure to report Caylee missing, her wild partying ways during the 31 days her child was missing, and internet searches about chloroform) is enough to prove neglect, but it is not enough to prove that she plotted to murder her daughter.  

Furthermore, we still don’t know exactly how Caylee died. That poor child’s body was terribly decayed, and there was no physical evidence to connect Casey to murder. The prosecution could only offer a theory of her death, and they brought in forensic experts to support their theory. The defense presented its forensic experts, who offered evidence against the prosecution’s claims. It is not unreasonable for the jurors to conclude the expert testimony resulted in a draw.

The risk of throwing the book at the defendant and leaving the jury decide what sticks is that it may cause the jury to sympathize with the defendant, making them more susceptible to the defense’s arguments—especially in cases where the physical evidence is scant.   I can only presume that in their overreach for capital murder, the prosecution lost credibility in the eyes of the jury, which could explain the short deliberation and even the acquittals for the lesser included offenses.

I share Charlotte’s disgust over the horrible accusations made in court against Casey’s father and brother.  But a defense attorney can only act according to his client’s wishes. Casey herself is the person responsible for those claims and she is the person who authorized her defense attorney to say it. The job of a defense attorney is to vigorously defend a client—no matter how despicable she may be—and put doubts in the mind of the jury about the prosecution’s case, which sometimes includes pointing the finger at other people. The defense is there to poke holes in the prosecution’s case, and ultimately make sure that the State does its job.  I’m not saying that her defense attorneys should be celebrated, but I don’t think they should be despised, either.

Bottom line is that while Casey may not spend a lifetime in jail or die at the hands of the state’s executioner, she will still suffer consequences for the rest of her life from her actions.  And one day, she’ll have to face her Maker and explain herself.

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