Thursday, July 7, 2011

Courting Reality in Anthony Verdict

You'd have thought after California's infamous O.J. Simpson verdict, the American public would have learned its lesson.

First, our grand judicial system isn't as perfect as we like to believe it is. Second, even with televised court proceedings, we don't necessarily see what the jury sees - or is allowed to see.

With Florida's Casey Anthony trial and verdict that wrapped up today, it seems legions of Americans still insist they're smarter than a painstakingly selected jury. Witness the ripples of animosity people have been exhibiting towards those 12 hapless Floridians who've given up six weeks of their lives sequestered by the court.

Even in some media companies, an unprecedented soul-searching has reportedly been taking place following the public's outcry after the verdict. It's obvious public sentiment did not match courtroom reality. And why is that? Because, even if they don't want to admit it, the American public's perception of the case came almost exclusively by what it saw in the media.

Give Us Dirty Laundry

Some self-righteous individuals claim that since they watched every single second of courtroom TV coverage, they know exactly what went on (and if you employ any of these people, I pity you). But really; how much does the average American know about courtroom logistics and procedural nuance to begin with? I can't imagine too many ordinary folks who spent the past six weeks glued to live coverage of the trial understood the significance of everything taking place in that courtroom. I'm not saying these viewers are stupid, dim-witted, or unreasonable; it's simply that lawyers have made most litigation incredibly tricky and counter-intuitive. So, television viewers have had to rely on the interpretations and explanations being given by guest lawyers and other experts hired by media companies to help sell this case to a public thirsty for coverage.

I'm not the first person to question whether America has become a country of voyeurs brainwashed by the media. Ever since the rise of the popular press in the Nineteenth Century, skeptics and cynics have complained about how easily Americans let the media shape our opinions of current events. Sometimes, we even demand that they do it.

Isn't it entirely likely that in this case, millions of voyeuristic television viewers and Internet surfers, bitten by sensationalistic headlines and teasers, failed to realize how their perceptions of this case were being manipulated - however unintentionally - by the media?

Whereas in the courtroom, cut off from the outside world, the jury's perspective was far narrower?

Personally, I have not participated in any of the froth and hysteria surrounding this case. Not that I'm better than that, or that I can't become excitable at the right headline. When news websites started their drumbeat of breathless announcements regarding the trial two months ago, I simply had no idea what they were talking about, and never became curious to find out. It wasn't until a retired next-door neighbor told me how she'd been glued to her television watching wall-to-wall coverage of the case that I realized it had become a sensation.

It may very well be that the young mother here, Casey Anthony, is guilty of killing her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, sometime in June or July or 2008. It may very well be that the literal truth was not presented to the jury. But does anybody really believe, as some irate Americans have suggested, that 12 ordinary people ignored blatant evidence and, after a relatively short deliberation, rendered what amounts to a vindication of someone who may be a murderer? I mean, I have my own moments of cynicism (!), but even I can't bring myself to suppose our society has become that dysfunctional.

There's more going on here, and that fact seems to have caught the nation off-guard.

Based on the Evidence

Most Americans don't want to admit that fundamental flaws may exist in our judicial system. Flaws which could deprive juries of reality that the rest of us think we plainly see.

Remember, this jury had been sequestered and isolated from all of the media overload. The only information they had available to them, upon which their deliberations were based, and which guided them to their verdict, was purely what lawyers provided inside the walls of the courtroom. They didn't go home every night and channel-surf through the news shows. They didn't sit with their computers and smartphones in their hotel rooms, scrolling through the ramblings of pontificating bloggers. They were not even allowed to think about extenuating circumstances that were not presented in the case. Their duty was to render a decision based on the evidence given to the court. And it's ludicrous to suggest that they took their responsibility lightly.

Several years ago, I sat on a jury in a two-day trial over a relatively complicated automobile accident. We jurors deliberated for most of the afternoon since we needed to apportion blame and award damages. It was no Casey Anthony trial, but we took our job seriously, and hammered out a verdict we could all support. We went back into the courtroom, the judge read our detailed verdict, and we were dismissed.

But the judge asked us to re-group back in the jury room for a de-briefing. After a few minutes, she joined us and closed the door. It turned out that a considerable amount of information that we could have used to help us in our deliberations had been legally withheld during the trial. Both lawyers and the judge had worked through details regarding the plaintiff and the defendant that were ultimately deemed inadmissible in court. Yet they were facts that would have led us to some different conclusions.

As the judge explained the legal process used for determining admissibility, we jurors looked at each other, shaking our heads in disgust. Had we known all of this other information, we all said we'd have rendered a different verdict. We felt cheated, especially after we'd taken the time and effort to methodically go over the case and reach a consensus. When our foreman gave our verdict to the judge to be read, I think we all felt as though we'd been successful in providing justice. After being debriefed by our judge, however, it all seemed like a wasted effort.

I don't know that any of the jurors in the Anthony case now feel anything like we did then. Those Florida jurors are being blasted by the public and the press, and they're probably currently reading everything that people outside of the courtroom have been reading during the past two months. Will any of them, in retrospect and after wading through all the facts they didn't see during the trial, come out publicly and refute their own vote? That remains to be seen.

Closing Arguments

Those people who have reacted so strikingly to the verdict in the Anthony case should at least find some comfort in the fact that nobody isn't angry at the death of a child. We need to remember that the jury agreed with Anthony's lawyer by finding that the government did not prove its case. The jury did not, as many media outlets have casually phrased it, actually say Anthony is not a killer. She simply wasn't proven to be one in this trial.

It's obvious that the Anthony family has some major issues that need to be resolved. Personally, I pray that they receive some tough-love Biblical counseling so they can learn from these past four years of litigation.

I also think that a good vehicle for the public's angst over this verdict would be the crusade against abortions. After all, hundreds of thousands of women kill their unborn children each year, a fact that scarcely raises an eyebrow among even evangelicals anymore, let alone vociferous rants of frustration and outrage. Don't like the ruling in the Casey Anthony case? There's a right-to-life center near you that can match your emotion with some action.

Indeed, the events in Florida this week help remind us that only God is our true source of justice. And that we should be careful about the amount of trust we hold in the laws and courts of man. What a testimony if we in the evangelical community let our jurisprudence work its part, and then responded with love to the Anthony family, never forgetting that eternity awaits all of us.

And it will be an eternity without the media!

To that, we can all probably exclaim: Amen!
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