Wednesday, July 6, 2011

(Un)reasonable Doubt?

I have not followed the sensational Casey Anthony trial in any detail. I have been aware of it, of course, through the annoyingly salacious tidbits they love to show on morning television news programs, and the generally tendentious commentary. I was aware of my own prejudices: from the photographs and videos, the young woman did not seem like someone I would want to spend much time with, a generally unsympathetic sort. What I heard of her behavior--odd, at best; and reprehensible, at worst--did not encourage me to believe in her innocence. I suppose I shared the same widely broadcast "information" as any average news watcher. And the same surprise when the verdict was announced yesterday.

So, quite obviously, I am in no position to evaluate the verdict, whether it was a good and fair one or, as many seem to believe, a travesty of justice. I have heard it said, repeatedly, that she "got away with murder." The verdict in the O. J. Simpson trial produced the same kind of response. It was generally agreed that the man was guilty--and I confess I agreed with that conclusion, even though I was only a little better informed in that case than in this one.

It does occur to me, though, that the standard of "reasonable doubt" may have shifted over the past few decades, to a place where it is now an extremely high bar for a prosecuting attorney to leap. Perhaps it is, in some ways, for the good. I think we are more skeptical of the information that reaches us than we were, say, five decades ago. We demand more in the way of "proof" to substantiate our belief. We have learned to distrust authority of all kinds, including the courts, and to have a greater faith in our personal judgment. Through a succession of wars, scandals and crises of all kinds (including the recent economic crisis) we have unlearned the quality of suspending disbelief. In the larger context, a great number of us have no God to provide us with clear answers or absolute judgments. We are thrown back on our own resources, whose limitations we are only too aware of.

Those who decry the verdict in the Casey Anthony trial must be convinced that the jury's doubts were unreasonable. They were not sitting in the courtroom day after day, confronted with reams of conflicting evidence, but nonetheless allow themselves the privilege of absolute certainty. Yet I know of at least one person who was glued to the proceedings on television for a great deal of time and--no matter how tendentious the stream of adverse commentary--came to share the jury's doubt.

The "truth," clearly, is hard to find, even in the most mundane of events and no matter the circumstances. What may seem like purely physical evidence is open to interpretation, and is eventually no more reliable than eyewitness reports have been shown to be. We each have a different view of what is happening before our eyes at this very moment, the "reality" we convince ourselves we perceive. How much more so, then, of the "facts" that are reported to us by others, who infect them with their own personal perceptions, prejudices and convictions?

Doubt, in the modern age, is endemic to our very nature. Which must make things extremely difficult for the prosecuting attorney--and very much easier for the defense. I guess we can only hope they got it right. We can be sure only that we will never know the "truth."


mandt said...

So, one assumes that after a drowning accident, ones puts tape over the mouth and nose with a heart sticker , or for that matter stages an accident as a murder.

PeterAtLarge said...

Well, there you go. It stretches belief.

mandt said...

You are right Peter, when justice becomes a commodity it becomes subject to inflation.

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YesBiscuit! said...

Many of us have followed developments in the case for 3 years and watched the trial on TV. That doesn't make us jurors, but it does give us the ability to render an informed opinion. Like many others, I feel this was a miscarriage of justice. The defense was based on the inconceivable notion that someone would take an innocent accident and make it look like torture/murder.

Regardless of one's opinion of what constitutes reasonable doubt, there are some undisputed facts in the case: The mother knew the baby was dead from day one. She was represented by counsel shortly after the story hit the media. The mother, together with counsel, maintained that the child was missing for months, allowing the local police, the FBI, and countless volunteers from all over the country to continue searching for the baby. Extensive resources were utilized in this search. All the while, the baby's remains were decomposing - as the mother knew - and with them any chance of conclusively proving cause of death.

Because the state was unable to conclusively prove cause of death, the mother was acquitted.

No one has been held accountable for these undisputed facts. The defense admitted the mother knew all along. I question whether the attorney knew too. I question whether the attorney advised the mother to keep quiet and allow the baby to rot so that meaningful evidence would be lost forever.

We'll probably never know. I do believe in karma and as such, believe that whatever the truth is, people will be held accountable in time.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks, Yes!, for the informed analysis and opinion. As I wrote, I have no basis to make one for myself.

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