Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Casey Anthony: the Difference Between Justice and Rage

By now you know that Casey Anthony was found not guilty yesterday, July 5th, in the death of her daughter Caylee.  Within minutes, the Monday-morning quarterbacks weighed in: did the prosecution let justice down?  Did the defense circumvent the law and let a killer walk free?  Or perhaps, are our assumptions wrong, and did she really not kill her daughter?

I was in high school in 1992 when jurors returned not guilty verdicts on the police accused of beating Rodney King.  Many of my friends felt American justice fumbled terribly, and right on our doorstep too (I lived in San Diego then).  I would not join the chorus in second-guessing the jury, because I believe jurisprudence needs to remain independent of public opinion.  But too many friends assumed I meant that the accused cops were innocent.

Let me be plain: based on the evidence I saw on television, the cops who beat Rodney King were probably guilty of misconduct and brutality.  If I had to judge on Casey Anthony based on what I know, she looks guilty.  But remember, jurors are sworn to a higher standard than I am.  When they ruled Casey “Not Guilty,” they were not saying she isn’t guilty, much less innocent.  They were saying the prosecution hadn’t proved Casey guilty.

From my La-Z-Boy, it sure looked like the prosecution did a lackluster job.  They pushed for the death penalty on a case with too little evidence.  Their sleepwalking approach to this case made me wonder why they pressed charges on such tender premises.  Then I realized they probably had another spur to action.

I've already commented on the moralistic hysteria accompanying this case.  Since then, the news media has observed crowds jockeying for limited gallery seats, catcalling the defense, and picking fistfights.  Commentators have spent less time and energy on actual proceedings than on Casey herself, deriding her stone-faced demeanor and wondering whether her refusal to wear her heart on her sleeves proves psychological pathology.

Relentless personal judgement has been the elephant in the room with this case.  Nancy Grace’s strident condemnation soured me on the morning news.  News programs rerun footage of Casey Anthony being escorted in handcuffs while an off-camera crowd shouts “baby killer,” repeating the same footage so often that it becomes clear the image serves to let journalists insert unannounced editorial opinion.

Democracy is not about the quadrennial right to vote for talking head-in-chief.  More than any other element, democracy depends on the hope that, if accused of a crime, citizens can rest confident that our cases will be heard by our peers, who agree to judge us according to certain rules.  If that guarantee gets hijacked to mollify media hysteria, democracy has been subverted.

When a representative of the court attempted to address the crowd yesterday, he was shouted down by citizens crying slogans like “No Justice For Caylee!”  Their behavior combined the worst aspects of tourists and rubberneckers at a traffic wreck.  Such herds always accrue to disasters like this, but justice requires they must not set the standards for a reliable trial.

I’m not alone in this opinion.  Both the prosecution and the defense, in the wake of the verdict, spoke harshly against the media coverage, which made gathering a jury pool exorbitantly expensive and difficult.  Both Caylee as victim and Casey as defendant deserve justice, and when the court cannot assemble a jury, or even guarantee the defendant’s bodily safety, this flies in the face of justice.

For hours after the jury read their verdict yesterday, countless TV talking heads spoke at (and past) each other about what this means for Casey Anthony, her family, and general society.  News anchors read strangers’ Tweets and Facebook updates like news.  In the 24-hour news cycle, which must manufacture something to report constantly, we think we’ve grown accustomed to manufactured apocalypses, but I discovered yesterday that I am not.

As a Christian, my heritage teaches me what happens when crowds start baying for blood.  Not that anyone would confuse Casey Anthony with Jesus; but herd behavior has little to do with justice.  Whether Jesus before Pilate, the Nuremberg Rallies, or a Klan lynching, clamoring crowds, however benevolent in their language, pervert the course of justice.

Casey Anthony has been ruled not guilty, not innocent.  Free citizens should not permit angry outbursts to stand in for redress or law.  And if media-generated hysteria again pushes action on a case not yet ready to run, we shouldn’t act surprised when guilty citizens walk free.

1 comment:

  1. Well reasoned and well said. Time to move on to the next 'circus'. And time for us all to contemplate (as you've done here) on the positive aspects of such 'circuses', including the cherished freedoms they exemplify.