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Casey Anthony and the Importance of Presumptive Innocence

TW: Child death and child abuse.

The trial of Casey Anthony was one that shook the state of Florida. Not because a child had died, and not because it had taken a month for the child’s grandparents to report her missing. No, the trial caused shock and outrage because people were unable to believe that Casey Anthony, who had partied while her daughter lay dead, who had neglected to inform anyone of the child’s death, and who had dumped her child in a garbage bag to decompose in a local copse, was acquitted of all charges except four minor counts of lying to a police officer.

It’s natural for people to immediately assume Casey Anthony is guilty when they hear the saga of how her daughter, Caylee, died and was discovered. Casey lived with her parents as a single mother, and said parents were normally quite involved in Caylee’s life. Hence, when Casey vanished for a month and took Caylee with her, they were concerned. Casey’s father located Casey’s car, which had been towed, and noted that it smelled of death and contained a (wholly innocent) garbage bag. This prompted Casey’s mother to raise the alarm. Casey was found partying and claimed that her nanny had stolen her daughter and she had been too afraid to contact the authorities.

Casey Anthony at her first arrest.

This nanny did not exist, and Casey’s account was full of holes, so she was arrested and charged with a number of offences relating to her lying and obstructing the search for her daughter. A month after Caylee had been declared missing and two months after she had last been seen by her grandparents, a metre-reader discovered the site of Caylee’s corpse. He attempted to contact the police but they performed only a perfunctory search, and did not take him seriously until December, many months after Caylee had last been seen. Her corpse was found in a garbage bag, wrapped in duct tape and far, far too decomposed for any kind of conclusive autopsy.

Caylee’s death was, unsurprisingly, declared a homicide. Children die, but they don’t often die accidentally bound and gagged with duct tape. Casey Anthony was put on trial, and put in a plea of not guilty. She was not claiming that she hadn’t been the one to dispose of Caylee’s dead body. She was instead, claiming that Caylee’s death had been an accident, and that she had merely disposed of the little girl in the same way she disposed of family pets; her mother testified to support that this was the burial method for previous pets. On the other hand, the prosecutors wanted the death penalty.

However, in the end, there just wasn’t any evidence of foul play. Caylee’s body was extensively decomposed and there was little evidence of a cause of death. The defence suggested that the child had drowned, as home videos indicated she was capable of making her way to the family pool unaided and could easily have fallen in. Any evidence like hair in Casey’s trunk was thus dismissed as artifacts of Casey disposing of her body like a pet. It was also suggested that the reason that Casey had continued on with her normal life was that her parents had been complicit in the coverup and had merely gotten cold feet later; after all, had Casey’s parents not raised the alarm, Caylee’s disappearance may never have been deemed significant. It’s not a crime to not report the death of a child, nor is it a crime to dispose of their body privately, even if this method is deeply strange. In the end, the main thing that got Casey in trouble was all the bizarre lies she had told early in the investigation, and the penalty for those was minor.

To put it lightly, the public was not happy with the outcome of this case. A child was dead, and the child’s only parent, her mother, had buried the child in a horrible fashion and then neglected to tell anyone about her death. It seemed completely impossible that Casey had not murdered her. People want to blame the mother when a child dies, and Casey seemed so very blame-able. They also wished to make it a felony to not report a missing or deceased child, although the reasons why this law wouldn’t work are detailed in a pretty good article here. In lieu of the court finding her guilty, Casey was the subject of death threats and had to basically go into hiding to avoid becoming the target of mob justice. 

A LOT of people felt that the outcome of the case was unfair.

Mob justice is a difficult but interesting topic for me. In fact, I’ve written previously on Onision, and the act of publicly shaming and deplatforming him through mob justice has been instrumental in starting legal actions against him and cutting off his supply of victims and money, so I can’t say that mob justice is always bad. It’s simultaneously a way for people who are not getting justice through the system to make things right, and a way for a whole big bunch of people to get all riled up and then beat someone to death for no reason.

In November last year, I attended a talk on “The Right Against Public Shaming”, which proved highly formative to my opinions on the topic. I’ll quote that here.

“What presumptively strong interest grounds the right against public shaming? James Nickel describes four basic, abstract claims that humans have. I think these “claims” correlate to particularly strong interests that we have. Firstly, “a secure claim to have a life”, which is a claim against violence and harm, but also the goods necessary to sustain life – food, water, sleep and shelter – and claims to assistance when those cannot be met. Secondly, “a secure claim to lead one’s life”, which encompass most of the familiar liberties, and a “claim to assistance in protecting one’s liberty, and for the creation and maintenance of social conditions in which the capacity for agency can be developed and exercised”. Thirdly, “a secure claim against cruel and degrading treatment”, which precludes very harmful or disrespectful treatment. Finally, “a secure claim against severely unfair treatment” such as discrimination, unlawful and arbitrary punishment. There are good reasons that public shaming, depending on its severity, can threaten all four of these claims, or interests, in various ways. To be clear, public shaming does not always or necessarily violate these claims. Rather, it is a threat to those claims, in the sense that there is a decent chance that public shaming might violate these claims for the typical human being.”

James Edgar Lim, Australian National University

What I’m trying to say is, since mob justice (like public shaming) can be arbitrarily dispensed and can have wildly disproportionate consequences, it’s not exactly ‘justice’, and it violates someone’s right to a fair trial. While in my heart of hearts I do believe Casey Anthony did something wrong and escaped punishment for it, the fact that she was not convicted despite the overwhelming public force to do so is actually a big win for the justice system, and I’ll explain why.

In a given court case, there are four outcomes: truly guilty, falsely guilty, truly innocent, and falsely innocent. The two false outcomes are to be avoided as much as it is possible. Obviously I’m over-simplifying, since people can be charged with multiple crimes and sentences can vary in severity. Bear with me. Which is worse, locking up the innocent, or letting free the guilty? Most legal systems have accepted that locking up the innocent is worse, hence the phrase “innocent until proven guilty”. It’s on the prosecution to prove that this person is guilty, which works to reduce the number of false guilty verdicts. For every Casey Anthony we must let slip through the cracks due to insufficient evidence, we can prevent innocent people from receiving a guilty verdict thanks to the upholding of the presumption of innocence, which is what it’s all about.

It hurts to see this as an outcome, but it would hurt even more if we let the justice system be ruled by the crowd instead of by a theoretically fair jury of your peers. Is the justice system fair in practice? No. Had Casey Anthony not been white, or not been a woman, her outcome would most likely have been different. Another jury, another state might have ruled differently. There’s a million other issues I could cite with the way America’s justice system works, and with the court system in general.

But the alternative to this is not mob justice, no matter how appealing it is to forgo a system I don’t trust that much and decide who’s guilty for myself. Instead, I need to keep my eye on that system and figure out how make it more trustworthy. And for that reason, though it leaves a foul taste in my mouth, Casey Anthony must walk free.

That’s what I have to say for today. Please consider subscribing to this blog to keep up with my new posts or dropping a few dollars in my tip jar. Thank you for your patronage, and I hope you are in the best of health.


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