Published July 05, 2011
Many Americans are stunned today that Casey Anthony has been found not guilty by a Florida jury for the murder or manslaughter of her 2-year old daughter, Caylee Marie. Not only that but critics are already taking to the media and speaking out, suggesting that the Florida jury rendered the wrong verdict.
After all, how could a jury acquit such a person when it’s so apparent that the defendant lied?
But the jury didn’t totally acquit Ms. Anthony. They found her guilty of lying to law enforcement because that’s the charge the prosecution was able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
That’s no slight against the prosecution.
Proving anything ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ is the highest standard under the law. It is much more severe than the civil standard of proving a case ‘by a preponderance’ of the evidence, or the evidentiary standard of ‘clear and convincing.’
Florida criminal case jury instructions say that, “a reasonable doubt is not a mere possible doubt, a speculative imaginary or forced doubt . . . on the other hand, if after carefully considering, comparing and weighing all the evidence there is not an abiding conviction of guilt, or, if having a conviction, it is one which is not stable but which waivers and vacillates, then the charge is not proved beyond every reasonable doubt and you must find the defendant not guilty because the doubt is reasonable. It is to the evidence introduced in this trial, and to it alone, that you are to look to that proof.”
In layman's terms, jurors must render their verdict only on the evidence presented to them in court and they cannot to let their imagination or speculation guide their decisions. In this case the jurors honored those instructions. They complied with the law.
Perhaps one of the most compelling pieces of circumstantial evidence in this case was the fact that someone did an Internet search for the word “chloroform,” on Ms. Anthony’s computer 84 times in March 2008, only a couple months before Caylee went missing that summer. That is undeniably very suspicious. But is it proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Ms. Anthony murdered her daughter? It may not even be evidence by a preponderance of the evidence, which is significantly lower.
Many Americans are frequently confused by the verdict in many high profile criminal cases, the O.J. Simpson case probably being the most memorable. There was initially a great deal of compelling circumstantial evidence that suggested that Mr. Simpson killed his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson in Brentwood, California.
Unfortunately, prosecutors suffered a devastating blow after the defense was able to use actual physical evidence to suggest that it was possible the Los Angeles Police Department may have planted some of the evidence. Some of the blood samples secured at the crime lab contained skyrocketed levels EDTA, a compound police departments use to preserve blood samples. That suggested it was possible the police actually took Simpson’s blood and planted some of it back at the crime scene.
Certainly, that doesn’t mean that police did in fact plant evidence, but if you were a juror on a criminal case and you had expert testimony that suggested it was even possible the police planted any evidence at all, would you convict someone of murder beyond a reasonable doubt? Would you want to risk sending an innocent person to life in prison or death when in fact the evidence did not rise to the standard required under the law?
Jurors are not supposed to based their decision on what may see obvious to the average person watching the news. They are supposed to base their verdict on the evidence, nothing more. That’s the law.
Shortly after the verdict was read in Florida, Anthony’s attorney, Jose Baez told the press, “We have the greatest constitutional system in the world, and if the media and other members of the public do not respect it, it will become meaningless.”
What many people often think is the product of a flawed justice system that allows the guilty to walk free is actually the finest example of our judicial process and the constitutional framework that designed it.
Casey Anthony’s verdict should remind us of the sanctity of civil liberties and due process rights, and how fortunate we are to live in a country where those constitutional principles are honored.
Those civil liberty protections, the ‘little things’ that that we take for granted are precisely what we will depend on most if we are the ones who are falsely accused. It is what reminds us that we live in America, and that despite its occasional miscarriages of justice we wouldn’t – or shouldn’t have it any other way.
Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is a former Washington, D.C. prosecutor who now practices law and investigative journalism. He has covered several high profile criminal case such as the JonBenet Ramsey murder case, the disappearance of Chandra Levy and the Columbine High School shootings.