The Great American Lynch Mob

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Lessons From the Casey Anthony Trial

by Ryan McMaken

Recently by Ryan McMaken: Privatize Marriage Now

Perhaps not since the feds hanged Mary Surratt for Abe Lincoln’s assassination have so many been so happy at the thought of seeing a woman lynched. To the outrage of bloodthirsty, bleary-eyed couch potatoes from sea to shining sea, Casey Anthony was found not guilty of the murder of her daughter. 

The case itself is far less interesting than the reaction to it. In spite of all the drama that the despicable “news” media attempted to inject into it, the actual trial was humdrum. In typical fashion, the prosecution built its case on mostly circumstantial evidence and on character assassination. The jury concluded that the prosecution had not proven guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A not-guilty verdict was returned. Case closed. 

This is exactly how the legal system is supposed to work. People are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, and guilt must be established beyond a reasonable doubt. We’re not supposed to convict people of capital crimes because we find them distasteful or annoying. 

None of that matters to the great American lynch mob, which, not even being present at the trial, finds itself so magnificently insightful and so morally pure, that its shrill cries for justice echo with unparalleled histrionic fervor down the virtual halls of Facebook and Twitter. 

But of course, we all know that Anthony was guilty because Nancy Grace told us so. Nancy Grace! Here’s a woman who makes Father Coughlin look like a man possessed of great reason and tolerance. Trotting up endless trains of “experts” who assured us of Anthony's guilt, and never tiring of providing the most shallow analysis of every moment of the trial, CNN made it clear that had it been around to report on Anne Hutchinson’s trial in 1637, the network would have ensured that no penalty short of public disemboweling would have been suitable for such a loathesome instrument of The Devil. Indeed, Grace herself assured us that “the devil is dancing” over the Anthony verdict. May the gods have mercy on anyone forced to endure Thanksgiving dinner with a woman so shrill and maudlin as this. 

And it is the reaction to the verdict that is, by far, the most interesting part of this national carnival of self-righteousness. Following the verdict, celebrities — many of whom are apparently famous for nothing more than being famous — made their solemn pronouncements about the sheer injustice of the trial. 

D-List celebrity Vivica Fox, that modern heir of both Cicero and Solon, declared on Twitter that “My heart is ripped apart! How dare those idiots on that Jury not see the truth? That b—- killed her kid! Who the hell killed Caylee then?” Fourth-rate comedian Kevin Nealon said things almost as brilliant

The pronouncements from the moralists among the non-famous were essentially identical in their moral indignation and in their metaphysical certitude that Anthony is, in fact, the most guilty person since Osama bin Laden.  And, since Americans were perfectly fine with killing him when unarmed and in captivity, we surely can find it in our hearts to give Casey Anthony the same treatment. 

The moralizing is even more intolerable when considered from a larger context, and the American ideal of "justice" in this case is enforced so selectively as to give even the most cynical observer pause.

The contradictions are so glaring, in fact, that even Rush Limbaugh, for the first time since Bill Clinton left office, said something insightful when he pointed out that had Casey Anthony — assuming she's guilty — simply killed Caylee five minutes before giving birth to her, Anthony would be hailed as a hero by virtually everyone at CNN. 

And of course, how many toddlers have been incinerated by American bombs or poisoned by American depleted uranium in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade? Who cares? Those toddlers didn’t even have the decency to be cute Anglo-Saxons.

But, before we throw a noose over a tree branch for Casey Anthony, there are a few lessons we can first learn from the trial:

Number One: We should take nothing we see in the media at face value: In spite of decades of evidence to the contrary, many people still think that they can make well-informed decisions about things based on what they’re given through television “news” programs. In fact, we the viewers are purely at the mercy of what the anchors and produces want us to see. All of the Americans who think that they followed the case “closely” still have access to only a fraction of the information available to jurors. Even someone who watched every single minute of the trial via live video feed can still only see what the camera is showing at any given minute, and can only hear what the microphones pick up. 

In addition, the government has much greater access to the media than the defendant in most cases. From day one of an investigation, the media will generally, without criticism, repeat whatever is said by the police about the suspects. Once the case passes to the hands of the district attorney, the media will then dutifully report whatever is said by the prosecutors. The accused meanwhile is shown to the public through mug shots and in video of being shuttled from jail to the courthouse. 

Number Two: Government prosecutors are not to be trusted. Does this point even need to repeated? Prosecutors routinely make prosecutions for political reasons. Cushy political appointments, elected offices and jobs as state and federal judges are at stake. The Duke Lacrosse Team, Tim Masters, and Lisl Auman can tell you all about it.  In addition, prosecutors are virtually never held accountable for anything. The disbarment of Michael Nifong is a rare case of this, and his punishment amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist compared to what he wanted to do to the accused. 

Number Three: We don’t know how we would react if one of our children ended up dead. The prosecution’s case rested heavily on using Casey Anthony’s strange and distasteful public behavior following the death of her daughter to paint her as a callous murderer. The moralists all declared that “we would never act that way.”

Yet, in real life, people do strange things when under enormous levels of stress, shock, and dismay. Some honest people might willingly admit, that if their children turned up dead, they might go on a three month bender unparalleled in the history of drunkenness. That’s what an honest person might admit, anyway. All of Anthony’s accusers, on the other hand, would no doubt show up to work on time the next morning and swing by the church on the way home and calmly light a candle.

What sort of person would act strangely and erratically following the untimely death of a child? A normal one. 

Number Four:  Intellectually honest atheists and Christians (and probably many others) agree: There is no true justice in this world. For the Christians, justice comes after this life. For the atheists, there’s no justice in any life, since we’re all just headed for oblivion, and Hitler and Sophie Scholl both ultimately met the same fate. 

Thus the public rending of garments and the calls for justice, no matter what the cost, is both dangerous and unrealistic. History is filled with unsolved murders; many of them horrific. They’ll never be solved. The killers will never be brought to justice. Once we include wars in the analysis, the prospects for justice are even more bleak. 

The jury felt there wasn’t enough evidence to convict. Should they have convicted anyway so that they could feel good about themselves? Any decent legal system should preclude the possibility of conviction in the face of insufficient evidence. This is why the ancient Jews required that at least two witnesses must agree on what happened. Nothing less could bring convictions. Anything else amounts to heaping one injustice upon another. One of the few commentators on this case not calling for the immediate execution of Casey Anthony noted that:

This case is good for the criminal-justice system and here's why: if people actually read the jury instructions about reasonable doubt, there would be a lot more acquittals…What this verdict does is demonstrate that unless the prosecution is able to show us how, why, when, and where the crime was committed, a jury is not going reach a decision that could end up sending a defendant to his death. 

Unfortunately, the jury members will need to defend themselves from the moral outrage of the likes of Nancy Grace, but they can take heart in the fact that everyone will forget about them once something more interesting comes on TV.

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] teaches political science in Colorado.

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