Casey Anthony: The price of an imperfect system

Rick Robinson Author, Writ of Mandamus
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I spent last week in New York City at Thrillerfest, a convention for lovers of thriller novels. It is a wonderful annual gathering where readers get to meet their favorite authors and authors get to break bread with their fans and colleagues.

Everywhere I turned, my fellow authors (and most people in the Big Apple for that matter) were talking about the most intriguing whodunit in years — and I’m not referencing Jeffrey Deaver’s brilliant new treatment of James Bond in 007 Carte Blanche.

People were talking about the Casey Anthony verdict, a topic I discussed with Sean Hannity as a guest on his “Great American Panel.” I was relieved when Sean and I shared a similar opinion on the verdict. We both believe that Casey Anthony probably had something to do with the death of her daughter, but that the state failed to meet its legal burden to prove her involvement.

No author at Thrillerfest would have tried to write the Casey Anthony story as fiction because the outcome would be too hard for a reader to believe.

My love/hate relationship with the Casey Anthony verdict

When I was a second-year law student, my criminal procedure professor went to great lengths to explain the three purposes for punishment: deterrence, rehabilitation and incapacitation. I had to fend off a tide of liberal outrage when I suggested that there was a fourth purpose: retribution.

I reasoned that in order for an authority to enforce the social contract, society must feel that certain evil people are not just deterred, rehabilitated or incapacitated. Society wants more than that. It wants evil people to suffer for their wrongdoing.

The desire for retribution often produces powerful emotions. Failing to satisfy that desire tends to undermine confidence in the system.

And that is part of what drives many of those who are attacking the system over Casey Anthony — no retribution, no justice.

Most people can’t even bring themselves to consider what it would feel like to lose a child. The thought is too damn painful. Only a narcissistic sociopath would hit the party trail and get a tattoo following such a tragedy.

As a father of three beautiful kids, I have to admit that I personally want justice for Caylee Anthony in the form of retribution against whoever killed her.

But because I believe in the rule of law, I am willing to accept the verdict knowing that in our system only people who are convicted of crimes are punished for them. It is nauseating to realize that Casey Anthony was afforded legal privileges not given to her dead daughter. It seems hideous, gross and contemptible to award legal privilege to vile people — at least until someone is wrongfully accused. Then those rights allow an innocent person to walk free.

Americans hate it when people who seem guilty of crimes aren’t convicted of them, but we must accept these verdicts as the painful price we pay for a system that is designed to ensure that no one who is falsely accused of a crime suffers at the hands of society’s primal desire for retribution.

The system may be imperfect, but it is not broken

Our criminal justice system isn’t broken. Nevertheless, the Casey Anthony verdict does highlight two flaws in the system.

First, statistics show that juries are unlikely to return guilty verdicts in capital murder cases when the defendant is a woman. If the prosecution can be faulted for anything in the Anthony case, it may be for seeking the death penalty against a female when the underlying evidence was all circumstantial.

While media coverage prior to Casey Anthony’s indictment may well have forced the prosecutor’s hand politically, it was a bad decision that overshadowed the entire case. Had the death penalty not hovered so large over the case, the jury might have returned a different verdict on the lesser charges.

Second, O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark made a very good point last week when she wrote that juries often confuse “reason for doubt” with “reasonable doubt.” The Casey Anthony legal team threw out lots of reasons to doubt. Whether any of those actually could have supported the jury’s finding of “reasonable doubt” will be debated for years.

Many have argued that “reasonable doubt” has been elevated by the so-called “CSI Effect,” where jurors expect evidence presented at trials to fall neatly into place. However, after watching closing arguments, putting Gary Sinise himself on the stand might not have been able to save the prosecutors’ case against Casey Anthony.

It’s likely that no one will ever be punished for killing Caylee Anthony. That’s the price we pay for enjoying an imperfect system.

Rick Robinson is the author of political thrillers which can be purchased on Amazon and at book stores everywhere. His latest novel, Manifest Destiny has won seven writing awards, including Best Fiction at the Paris Book Festival.