On Christmas Day, a report of a missing girl is phoned in. Her parents state that they returned home from a holiday celebration the night before and put both their children to bed immediately. In the morning, the mother found a strange, elaborate ransom note lying on the stairs…the note had been written on paper from inside the house. It demanded money for the return of her young daughter, and a search of the house proved the child was missing. Later that day, the father finds the body of his little girl in the basement, and rushes to free her from the ligature around her neck and the tape on her mouth. Later, both parents hire a lawyer and are viewed to have stopped cooperating with police. They are judged to be unusually stoic and reserved when speaking to news media about their daughter’s death.
Years before, a young family goes camping in Australia. The mother leaves her infant daughter unattended in an unzipped tent for mere moments to heat up some food for her son. Some of her fellow campers hear a small cry, which they alert the mother to. The mother rushes back to her tent, only to find that some pools of blood are all that is left of her baby girl. She sees what she thinks to be a dog or a dingo leaving the tent, and yells out that a “dingo has her baby!”, although she later admits that she couldn’t detect anything in the animal’s mouth. A search party is immediately organized, but they find no sign of the missing child, and when they do find the infant’s clothes, they appear to be perfectly placed, with no tearing or bite marks and little blood. Later, evidence of blood on a camera bag in the family vehicle and the parents’ erratic, “reserved” behavior casts doubt on the young couple. Their unusual religion, the so-called “haughty” demeanor of the mother, and even some red coloring on the pages of their family bible leads to more suspicion.
Don’t the above scenarios sound incredible? In both cases, the court of public opinion found the parents guilty of murdering their children. This all but ruined the parents’ lives, and sadly it was eventually proven that both families had been telling the truth and were in fact innocent. That pronouncement came too late for Patsy Ramsey, who passed away from cancer no doubt brought on in part by stress, and for Lindy Chamberlain, who had already spent years in jail after her wrongful conviction.
In both cases, how the parents reacted and the seemingly suspicious circumstances were enough to render a guilty verdict in the court of public opinion. We fully expect people to act like we imagine we would if such a terrible thing happened to us. If our child was murdered, we’d report it right away, sob uncontrollably through every media interview, and cooperate fully with police, never feeling the need to hire a lawyer…right? Well, remember Susan Smith? She cried uncontrollably through her media interviews, too. And yet….
In my opinion, it’s dangerous to render a guilty verdict based on how someone acts. This is what has always disturbed me about the Casey Anthony case. The public decided Casey killed her two-year-old daughter Caylee long before she got her day in court. She didn’t report her daughter missing; she went partying and seemed thrilled to be without the responsibility of caring for a young child; her abandoned car had a suspicious smell in the trunk (some say it was human decomposition, others say rotting food). When Caylee’s poor body was finally found not far from the house, no cause of death could be determined, but some duct tape was found on the corpse.
Yesterday a jury of her peers–despite plenty of evidence that Casey acted irresponsibly (and most would say strangely) in the wake of her daughter’s death–found her innocent of all charges (except for lying to law enforcement). The court of public opinion has weighed in as well, bemoaning her release and calling the jury’s decision a travesty of justice. But is it? To my mind, Casey has been proven to be a pathological liar and an immature, irresponsible person whose reactions are often faulty. But does that make her a murderer? Knowing what the facts are in this case, and how incredible the opening scenarios in this post, would you feel comfortable sending this woman to her death? There is absolutely no firm evidence that proves that she caused the death of her daughter, but the court of public opinion has already convicted her, based on the way she acted and the things she said. No matter what happens in the future, Casey will lead a miserable, ostracized life. So much for our faith in the justice system.
Some people are comparing this to the O.J. Simpson case, but in that particular circumstance, plenty of evidence that probably would have convicted O.J. was withheld from the jury (but resulted in a civil court judgment against the former football star afterwards). That is not the case in the trial of Casey Anthony. There simply was not enough evidence to prove that she murdered her daughter, and that is not my opinion–that is the jury’s ruling.
There’s a lot of danger inherent in judging someone because he or she doesn’t act “normally” or how we think they should. You may remember a suave, handsome, brilliant young businessman and student. He was charming, had plenty of girlfriends, and was known for his community work, including volunteering for a crisis line. Many of his friends, including high-ranking politicians, cops, and savvy journalists, envied this talented man, who was viewed to be a star on the rise. Yes, many people looked up to Ted Bundy.
What do you think of the Anthony verdict? Would you have felt comfortable convicting her, based on the available evidence? Why or why not? Does the court of public opinion have too much weight?