(Fred Weinberg/The Penny Press) – I know that a collective nation sharply drew its breath last week when a Florida jury came back and acquitted Casey Anthony of murder and child abuse.
Mostly, however, those were people who had never covered a murder trial from start to finish. Or even a shoplifting trial. And that especially includes the TV talking heads.
I’m a big believer that everyone who wants to be a journalist when they grow up should spend six months doing nothing but covering a courthouse—any courthouse—including the criminal trials.
They will never think about the concept of justice in the same way.
Covering a capital murder case will scar you for life.
If you’ve ever watched the movie Rollerball, you begin to get the idea of just how the criminal justice system works.
It’s, first and foremost, a game—not a search for the truth.
Most District Attorneys are overwhelmed with cases. In Orange County, Florida, for example, the number is 101,000 a year.
No matter how crime statistics are down, we don’t have enough courtrooms for all of the malefactors who get arrested and plead “not guilty.”
Prosecutors do have an advantage over defense attorneys because they get to pick their cases—unless there is a whole lot of political pressure to prosecute—like the Anthony case.
Not only did media eminences like Nancy Grace lean so hard on Florida’s Orange County State’s Attorney to indict the little psycho-mom, he got so carried away that he asked for the death penalty.
Any journalist who remembers his or her courthouse and cop shop days will tell you it just wasn’t in the cards. Like O.J. in 1995.
Juries, by and large, take what they do very seriously—unlike Grand Juries.
Most DAs can get a Grand Jury to indict a canned ham.
But getting 12 good citizens to sit through a month and a half trial and vote unanimously to put a woman to death is a whole different task.
After a while they really don’t care what Bill O’Reilly or Nancy Grace thinks. Or even Geraldo.
What they really want to see, is proof, beyond all reasonable doubt.
Very few people get on a jury and act like TV pundits say they do.
Most jurors are just regular Americans who really believe in doing the right thing.
I know. Not only did I put in my time in courthouses as a reporter but I’ve been called to sit in a Nevada Jury Pool four times in the last 10 years. ( I actually almost got on a jury, except for the fact that my last name starts with a W.)
Which brings us to the most common misconception about our criminal justice system.
The job of a juror is NOT to decide guilt or innocence.
The job of a juror is to decide whether or not the state has PROVED guilt.
It is the job of the PROSECUTOR to seek the truth.
And that has a tendency to get lost in the politics of a high profile trial.
Which is why it is the job of the defense attorney to scrap and claw the prosecution’s eyes out to defend his client. That’s what they call zealous representation.
They don’t call it an adversary system for nothing.
Is it pretty?
Does it make mistakes?
But it’s a lot more palatable than the way they do things in Saudi Arabia or Iran.
Or put another way, just because Casey Anthony is a lying, psycho slut doesn’t mean that she would murder a two-year-old daughter.
Absent any real evidence—and it was absent—that’s a big leap to make just because you detest the defendant.
In the case of O.J. it was Johnny Cochran’s unforgettable, “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.”
The glove didn’t fit.
In this case it was Jose Baez’s “forensic fantasy.”
And it was a potpourri of junk science.
Should Casey Anthony ever be trusted with anything more valuable than an aquarium again?
But none of her behavior or her narcissism makes her a murderer.
And that’s exactly what the jury said in their verdicts.
Nothing more, nothing less.
That, to go off on a short tangent, is why we should never try enemy combatants who have been captured on the battlefield in the same court system we reserve for ourselves.
But I just don’t know of a better and fairer way for us to treat ourselves.