UND Law Professor Responds to Casey Anthony Verdict

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UND Law Professor Responds to Casey Anthony Verdict

The legal system in the United States is often thought of as a model for developing nations around the world. At the heart of this system are myriad protections put in place to shield average citizens from potential abuse at the hands of prosecutors or government officials. Foremost of these is the jury—a sworn body of citizens convened to render an impartial verdict. And while the purpose of a jury is generally understood, we often struggle to balance our respect for the system with an acceptance of its outcomes.

The greatest challenge to this notion in a generation came in the recent verdict in the trial of Casey Anthony, a Florida woman accused of killing her daughter, Caylee Anthony. The trial received almost round-the-clock coverage beginning in 2008 and was immediately sensationalized, mostly by HLN (formerly known as Headline News) and hosts of its leading programs like Jane Velez-Mitchell and Nancy Grace, among others, and on other networks. The case became “one of the biggest ratings draws in recent memory,” according to the New York Post.

“If you watched [HLN] exclusively then you’re definitely going to have a skewed perspective,” says Gregory Gordon, a former federal prosecutor and Associate Professor in UND’s School of Law. “I had some issues with Nancy Grace… she’s certainly free to comment on the case. What bothers me is that she attempts to legitimize her commentary as a “legal expert”–in many ways she’s more of a victim’s advocate.”

Grace has led the charge to impugn Anthony in the press. Most notably, she received criticism over her decision to refer to Anthony as "Tot Mom," saying it was shorthand for the compressed information area at the bottom of the television screen. Critics see it as a way to remind viewers of the victim, thereby reinforcing an emotional appeal while heaping conjecture and revelation on Anthony.

Gordon explains that advocacy is very different from analysis, and while it may support a particular narrative, or further a meme in the ongoing coverage, it is not the most helpful way to arrive at the truth. “If one portrays oneself as a legal expert, then I think one has a duty to look at the bigger picture. I think [Grace] tends to focus on the things that interest her… in a way that’s more from an advocate’s perspective than from the perspective of an expert who’s providing a balanced analysis.”

The Casey Anthony Case was particularly complicated for a number of reasons. Caylee’s death occurred in 2008, but it is not clear exactly when she died—sometime between June 16 and July 18 of that year. For 31 days, Casey Anthony did not report the child as missing. Making matters worse, Anthony repeatedly lied to investigators, parents and friends, charges for which she would ultimately be convicted. In September 2008, Anthony was offered limited immunity, which she refused. In April, 2009, prosecutors announced they intended to seek the death penalty.

According to Gordon, seeking the death penalty as a charging strategy may have worked against the prosecution. “You’re asking for the ultimate penalty. You’re asking for someone’s life…. If this had been charged more appropriately, you might have seen a different result.”

In the end, the jury returned a not-guilty verdict on the three most serious charges, including first degree murder, aggravated child abuse, and manslaughter of a child. Anthony was convicted of giving false information to law enforcement in reference to a missing person, with a maximum possible sentence of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Immediately after the verdict was rendered, many were left feeling that Casey Anthony had gotten away with murder. "...The devil is dancing tonight," said Grace.

Days after the verdict, members of the defense team, Casey and her parents, and even the jurors began receiving death threats. What happened?

Focusing our anger on the jury is the wrong response, says Gordon. “The jury didn’t find that [Anthony] was innocent. It found that she wasn’t guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. I think the jury… and the public were left with questions…. The important thing is the jury took its job very seriously.”

Response to the verdict has brought out the worst in some. On July 8, 2011, just days after the verdict, and while Anthony was still in jail, Sammay Blackwell of Choteau, Okla., was attacked merely for resembling Anthony. Her attacker rammed her car several times in the parking lot of a convenience store after accusing Blackwell of “killing babies.”

This polarizing has extended from HLN, all the way to Wikipedia, which in its discussion pages reveals a struggle with a title for the article, with Wikipedians split between “The Death of Caylee Anthony,” a title that would seem to reference the victim, and “The Casey Anthony Trial.”

While people have a right to be angry with the verdict, taking out their anger on jurors is counterproductive and could be, in fact, harmful if it translates into changes to the system. “We owe a certain amount of our liberty to the burden of proof the prosecutors will be held to,” says Gordon, “…that way we can’t all be called in and accused of a crime and unjustly convicted. I regret, in this particular case, a little girl lost her life and we as a public don’t know what happened.”

But who’s to blame for the perception that it was the jury that was in error and not the prosecution who actually had the burden of proof?

“My sense is [the media coverage has] polarized public opinion,” says Gordon. “There’s a sense of outrage because people think the verdict was not the right verdict.” The sense that the jury in the case did not return the “right verdict” presupposes that a correct verdict would have been guilty on first degree murder charges—an outcome many in the media had predicted.

Whether the case elicits as much attention as Casey Anthony's, or O.J. Simpson's, it is best to remember that it is the independence of the system we cherish, not necessarily each and every verdict it renders. As Gordon says, the alternative would be much more dangerous to each and every one of us. "Juries are seen as a buffer between the state… and an overzealous prosecutor, a complacent judge… an especially important buffer between the citizen who’s hauled into court to answer criminal charges and the machinery of the criminal justice system being pitted against that lone individual.”

Craig Garaas-Johnson News and Features Editor

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