As I eagerly awaited the jury’s verdict in the State of Florida vs. Casey Anthony murder trial, one that has been hailed by Nancy Grace, Jane Velez-Mitchell and other TV pundits as the “Trial of the Century,” I found myself thinking back to October of 1995, when the verdict in the last “Trial of the Century,” also known as the People of California vs. OJ Simpson, was rendered on an early Fall afternoon.
On that cool October day, I was preparing to enroll as a law student the following January at the University of Florida. While I had yet to determine what area of law interested me the most, like many Americans, I had been captivated by the efforts of the late Johnnie L. Cochran, whose eloquent closing arguments, since reduced to the simple yet memorable phrase “if it doesn’t fit — you must acquit,” served as a textbook example of how to shred a prosecution case based upon circumstantial evidence.
Today, after 12 years of criminal law experience that includes having tried over 80 felony trials to completion — two of which were first degree murder cases — I am convinced that based upon the evidence produced in trial, the jury was right in finding Casey Anthony not guilty of first degree murder in the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.
While I believe her to be not guilty, the same does not necessarily make her innocent. We may never know precisely what happened to Caylee or what her mother and grandparents did or did not do regarding the same. The only thing that is abundantly clear is that young Caylee was born into what can best be described as a dysfunctional family, and we will forever be haunted by the notion that her death could have — and should have — been prevented.
Most seasoned lawyers recognized after opening statements that this would be a difficult case for the prosecution as the lack of fingerprints, DNA or other forms of direct forensic evidence rendered this a circumstantial case. Yes, the jury learned about the duct tape around Caylee’s mouth, but it did not learn who placed it there. They learned that her body was dumped to decompose in anonymity on swamp land, but they did not learn who placed her remains there.
These facts are precisely why I question the opinions of Nancy Grace of CNN Headline News and others who manufactured a media circus that convicted Casey Anthony in the court of public opinion before the first piece of evidence was entered into the actual court’s record. While most journalists are charged with providing fair and balanced reporting, Florida courts have held that journalists covering legal proceedings are charged to be fair, balanced and accurate.
Neither fairness, nor balance, nor accuracy was on display among Grace and her cohorts, most of whom had concluded that “Tot Mom,” as Grace in tabloid fashion routinely called Anthony, was guilty. The outrage that these pundits showed in the verdict’s wake raises issues with respect to whether one of our more hallowed institutions, the courtroom, has been reduced to a spectacle more reminiscent of a sporting event where winners are cheered and losers are jeered.
I am not arguing that state courts should follow their federal sisters in removing cameras from sessions, as I truly believe that there is value in the public observing legal proceedings and realizing that our system of jurisprudence is unique among industrialized nations. If nothing else, public trials prove that our system works both for the wealthy like Simpson and now for the not-so-wealthy like Anthony.
16 years ago, the Simpson jury was excoriated by angry onlookers who felt that they were too ignorant to understand the complexities of the “mountains” of forensic evidence prosecutors promised. Following the Anthony verdict, I read and heard disparaging comments from those finding fault with the Anthony jurors for similar reasons.
What is lost on onlookers and even some of the paid “legal experts” is that Florida jury instructions require each juror to render a verdict that is free from bias or sympathy. Meaning, while one’s emotions may lead them to believe that Casey Anthony was a murderer, the emotionless truth is that there was a lack of evidence to prove it.
This last point is important as America continues to be further removed from its not so distant past, when men, women, and sometimes children like Emmitt Till were summarily executed by mob violence based upon emotional “beliefs” that the perpetrator was guilty.
Perhaps the legal talking heads should remember that history before, during and after the next murder trial of the century.