The Casey Anthony trial is just the latest example of jurors getting it wrong. “Common sense” may be overrated. Complex issues often require the application of “uncommon sense.”
In what other important human endeavor would we take twelve amateurs, with little understanding of the justice system, the respective roles of the participants, and no experience in fact-finding, and ask them to analyze often complex and conflicting evidence in the “hope” that they can determine the truth, usually in an environment where one side or the other may not want the truth to be revealed.
For health care, we see a doctor; for building, a contractor; for tax problems, an accountant; for legal issues, a lawyer. Normally, we seek out professionals to guide us in matters beyond our knowledge or experience. But, for justice we rely on amateurs.
Some argue the jury system provides a sensible buffer between the power of the state and a person accused of a crime or that jurors bring their own valuable experience and common sense in resolving civil disputes. Although they may on occasion get it wrong (as do judges), that is no reason to eliminate citizen participation in the pursuit of truth and justice.
Our criminal justice system is properly based on the belief that it is better to let a guilty person go free than to convict the innocent. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant’s right not to testify, and the exclusion of illegally seized evidence provide protection for the accused.
As they should, prosecutors have a heavy burden. Since most criminals are not caught in the act, they often must rely on circumstantial evidence.
The jurors apparently acquitted Casey Anthony because they could not determine how her two-year-old daughter had died despite overwhelming evidence that she had died from unnatural causes. As the prosecution argued, one does not cover up an accident to make it look like murder.
The defendant’s bizarre behavior after the death of her daughter and the lying to explain her absence offered compelling evidence of guilt. There was no “reasonable” explanation for her behavior other than to cover up the child’s death.
The duct tape, the chloroform, and the abandoned body were further evidence of premeditated murder. But, assuming the jurors could not accept the notion that a young mother could murder her child, they had another option – manslaughter.
They could have at least concluded that the child had suffered a violent death. The evidence was more than compelling that her mother was instrumental in that death. It was either caused by an act of premeditated murder, or, at the very least, a violent act during an angry outburst. There is, frankly, no other reasonable hypothesis on the evidence to explain the death and disappearance of the child.
The jurors got hung up on the cause of death and in so doing failed to connect the dots, which is another way of describing inferential reasoning. The evidence of foul play and Casey Anthony’s involvement in it was overwhelming. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is not proof beyond all doubt.
The jurors got lost in the trees. They were unable to separate the emotion, posturing, and distortion, often a part of such cases, from the facts.
A defense attorney’s job is not just to protect and defend the innocent; it is to also defend the guilty and, by whatever ethical means available, to create doubt in the minds of the jurors. The range of appeal trying a case before a jury is much broader than before a judge.
A lawyer before a jury is like a pitcher throwing to a fan just out of the stands; before a judge, he is facing a designated hitter. Just as in baseball, a professional will usually do better than an amateur.
The jury has spoken and “justice” has been done. Any system involving human beings will have flaws and the justice system is no exception. It sometimes produces “justice,” but not the truth. At its best, it gets it right and produces a purer form of justice, that which is based on the truth.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.