Just a little over a week ago, I happened to be taking a few days off work.
Now, I admit, when I am off work, the news junkie in me does not take a vacation. So there I was cleaning the house and, from time to time, tuning into the Casey Anthony murder trial.
Interested because I had followed the Florida mother’s case somewhat since the early days of her 2-year-old daughter Caylee’s disappearance three years ago, I would flip to the courtroom feed throughout the trial to see how the proceedings were unfolding. Jury selection, opening statements, testimony, rebuttals, closing arguments, jury instructions and verdict — I loosely followed the coverage to see how the jury would decide.
Now I am a veteran of sitting in a courtroom, having covered many proceedings in Clinton County District Court as well as federal court. One thing I firmly believe is that you never can tell how a jury is going to decide. Honestly, there are many times I’ve come back to the newsroom while on a break during a trial and am asked how I think it is going to end.
I won’t venture those guesses anymore.
I don’t like to be wrong.
See, you may think the prosecution has the perfect case. The attorneys working on behalf of the state can put the defendant, through their version, at the scene of the crime. They can outline the means by which the crime was committed and the motivation they believe the defendant had at the time. It all makes perfect sense.
But then, the defense gets its turn to call witnesses, present its case as to why the prosecution, which has the burden of proof, is off base. And you will hear such compelling arguments that you will walk out of the courtroom, scratching your head wondering how you ever could have thought the defendant was guilty.
What I do know is that what observers such as myself or members of the public who are in the courtroom see is so much different than what the jury will be left with to consider.
That’s because while we all will hear two sides of a story, what I am given will be different than what the jury gets, based on what the judge will or will not let them hear or see.
Along the way of any trial, there are objections made by attorneys. There are at times discussions between the judge and attorneys about what the jury, which is not present during the discussions, will or will not be allowed to hear based on a judge’s decision, made while following the law. Also keep in mind that motions to suppress evidence also can be thrown into the mix. This also has an impact on what is placed before the jury.
The jury will take all that information, gathered over what could be several days and presented to them verbally, with the help of expert testimony, photos, and physical evidence, and then see how all that fits with the charge or charges the defendant faces.
And it doesn’t end there. The jury not only has to decide guilt, but also could be presented with deciding whether that person is guilty of a lesser charge.
It then has to digest all that information, and as a group reach a decision based on what it heard.
It is a daunting and important task — a commitment for anyone who is chosen and willing to serve.
Knowing all this, I can honestly say that when the Anthony jury found her not guilty of killing her daughter and placing her in a swamp, I wasn’t surprised. It takes a mountain of evidence, and should, for such a conviction and if the jury believed the prosecution’s case didn’t prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt then it did the right thing.
Convicting her on the four counts of lying to authorities seemed correct, since she apparently led them on a wild goose chase in the days after the disappearance of the little girl came to light. It also makes sense that she would get out in such a short amount of time when figuring in her time served and the formula based on good behavior that is used in calculating release dates.
What did surprise me was the vehemence from the public.
I understand why people want someone to pay for the crime. A little girl is dead and there needs to be justice.
I also understand why they think Casey did it. Wall-to-wall news show coverage at the time Caylee disappeared, when jail phone call tapes were released and then during the trial itself all point to a mother who was partying at the time her daughter was missing. That shows she is a bad mother, for sure. But, to the jury, which apparently couldn’t make the leap from bad mothering to murder, it wasn’t enough.
What I can’t understand is the mob mentality and how this trial was turned into a reality show. How did we get to the point where this trial is looked at almost as entertainment, with every participant turned into a character by the commentators perched outside the courthouse — and who, when not covering the trial, incite the crowds around them and the viewers at home.
It is unfortunate that Casey Anthony will be a free woman if she in fact committed murder.
But maybe in the end, the good that comes out of it is that people will pay closer attention to the criminal justice system overall, not just when TV personalities incite the public.
Maybe then we will see that our system is set up as best as it can be to get it right as many times as it possibly can.
And that while sometimes a guilty person can be and is exonerated, that still is better than having an innocent person placed behind bars.
Charlene R. Bielema is the Clinton Herald’s editor.