Respecting the Rule of Law Even When It Hurts

by Timothy B. Corcoran on July 6, 2011

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It seems as if the entire Internet went wild when Casey Anthony was acquitted of the charge of killing her daughter, Caylee.  Anthony was found guilty of lying to police during the investigation but isn’t expected to serve additional time beyond the period of incarceration prior to her trial.  There was, and continues to be, great hue and cry over the outcome of the case, with nearly all pundits decrying the outcome as unjust, a miscarriage of justice, a travesty.

The defense lawyers are accused of introducing junk science and the jurors are deemed to be idiots.  After all, the evidence as presented in the press and trial broadcasts overwhelmingly portrayed Casey Anthony as white trash whose social life was hampered by her child, and once the child was gone she obstructed the police investigation while continuing her partying ways.  Clearly the judicial system broke down and justice was not served by letting her go free.

Or was it?

I have no particular insight into this case, and I watched and read substantially less about the case than the pundits and television lawyers who can readily rattle off evidence and timelines and motives.  Nevertheless, from my standpoint, the judicial system worked.  Whether the verdict was the right one I’m not qualified to say.  Was Casey Anthony an unfit mother?  Quite possibly.  Did Casey Anthony kill her own daughter and get away with it?  We may never know.  Should she go to jail because it sure seems like she’s guilty?

Our criminal justice system is based on the premise that the accused is innocent until proven guilty.  And our system requires that the government convince an impartial jury, based on lawfully obtained evidence, that the accused is guilty of the alleged crime beyond a reasonable doubt.  Failing to do so requires an acquittal.

This means that sometimes bad guys go free, possibly because the prosecution performed poorly, or the police obtained unlawful evidence that could not be introduced into trial.  We’ve all read accounts where defendants confessed to a crime, yet the confession was not admissible in court and therefore the guilty party walks away.  Surely an exception can be made in these cases?

What about the many cases from yesteryear that have been re-opened once new evidence or new investigatory techniques are introduced?  How many residents of death row have been fully acquitted of the crime for which they have been imprisoned and scheduled to be executed — not just had doubt cast on their guilt, but absolutely ruled out as a possible suspect knowing today what we didn’t know at the time of trial?  In some of these cases there was also a confession, though as it turns out it was inaccurate.

Of course defense lawyers will seek every advantage, including venue shopping to find sympathetic  judges and retaining jury consultants to learn what techniques are more likely to nudge a jury toward an acquittal.  Defense lawyers will hone in on every mistake made in the investigation, cast doubt on the credibility and motives of honest civil servants, introduce theories that distract from damning evidence and foment doubt.  But this is what a fierce advocate is supposed to do.  If the system works, then by and large the government will prevail over these tactics and the accused will be found guilty if he or she is indeed guilty.

Sometimes these tactics lead to a guilty party walking away, but each instance serves as a learning opportunity for the police and prosecution and presumably they will improve their approach next time.  It breaks your heart to hear of a guilty criminal who escaped punishment only to commit another crime.  But it doesn’t mean the overall system is flawed.

On a macro level, this is how the judicial system is supposed to work.  Contrast that with the mob mentality exhibited recently in countless blogs, tweets, news articles, editorials and Facebook posts, in which so many people who are so certain of Anthony’s guilt believe that anything short of a guilty verdict means the system is broken.  Some have even hinted at taking matters into their own hands to deliver swift justice.  How can this possibly be deemed a better system than due process under the law?

Imagine someone accused of a heinous crime.  Imagine that through mere sloppiness or outright malfeasance the arresting and/or investigating officers took some shortcuts that helped cement the case.  Imagine that the prosecutor operates under the understandable assumption that anyone caught so deeply into the system must be guilty and therefore no leniency or plea deal is offered.  Imagine the defense lawyer who ponders the overwhelming evidence and decides that it’s not worth a robust defense since a finding of guilt is inevitable.  Imagine the jury and the judge are eager to get on with their busy lives so the proceedings aren’t given the proper respect but rushed through.  Any one of these could be enough to send an innocent person to prison.  Is it so hard to believe that on occasion, one or more could occur?

Who did you have in mind as you pondered this?  How does it change things if you consider it’s your mother, or sister, or nephew caught up in this farce and you know — not hope, not suspect, not desire, but really know — that she or he is innocent of the crime?  Do you see how a system rigged to presume guilt could steamroll an innocent party?

Now replace your kindly mother, beloved sister, or rascally nephew with a low-income, poorly-educated, inarticulate, slovenly stranger, the likes of which you’ve seen only from afar working at minimum wage jobs.  Given the same facts, why does this person deserve any less protection under the law?

I’m not nearly as eloquent on this topic as I’d like to be. There are many other opinions out there, some of which I agree with, some not so much, even when the conclusion is the same.  For me it boils down to cherishing a judicial system that makes it harder rather than easier to find someone guilty, else we become a society that allows mob rule or conventional wisdom or religious tradition or our leaders, elected or otherwise, to decide our fates.  And I’m just not ready to accept that.

 

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mike O'Horo July 22, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Well said, Tim. Everyone else, please put away the torches and pitchforks, walk back down the hill, and return to your background tedium.

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