Days after the Casey Anthony verdict, the drumbeat against America's jury system has swelled to an angry Greek chorus: "What were the jurors thinking--the mother partied for a whole month when her daughter was presumably missing?"
Many of these same confounded citizens also threw up their hands with the O.J. Simpson trial: "There was blood in the Bronco, for God's sake, and he was running away from the police!" And there were those who wondered how the plain facts of the Michael Jackson pedophilia case resulted in an acquittal: "He was sleeping in his bed with children that weren't his own!"
What these cases all have in common is not that they were celebrity trials, but that they represent a continuing loss of faith in the legal system. As entertainment these trials outperformed the steroidal voyeurism and tawdriness of reality TV. As civics lessons and as tutorials on the justice system, however, they were devastating failures.
Absurd verdicts are not limited to the rich and famous, or the suddenly radiant trailer trash. In May two New York City police officers who had assisted a drunken woman to her apartment while on duty, and then ended up spending the night with her, were acquitted of rape charges.
People are left to wonder: Are jurors simply stupid, or does something happen during legal trials that temporarily disables their common sense and critical thought?
Part of the incomprehension is an unacknowledged split between the legal and the moral in American law. A legally correct result can and often is morally repugnant. Legal laymen stand mystified and question what the eyes of the jury were looking at. What's the point of having a ringside seat if your vision ends up completely distorted, if you can't see what's really going on? The Casey Anthony jurors could have stayed home and watched it all on cable TV, and then phoned in a verdict that would have shown better judgment and matched the opinion of the rest of the nation.
Citizens have the right to expect that what is true will be discoverable at trial, and that obvious guilt can surely withstand the test of reasonable doubt. Legal decisions should make sense not simply to lawyers and judges; they should also appeal to the rightness and righteousness of ordinary people. What is a verdict if it doesn't verify the truth -- not some legalistic stand-in called legal facts, but the actual truth?
The Casey Anthony verdict may be the most recent example of this lack of coherence between what is glaringly right and what is provable under the law. Everyone watching from the cheap seats of their home is desperate to believe that the legal system is meaningfully interested in finding the truth and punishing the guilty.
But this, too, is yet further wasted wish fulfillment.
There is an altered reality inside courtrooms. Everyone is breathing a different kind of air. Insulated by all that marble and mahogany, the talking head noise of cable TV and the common sense word of mouth on the street are blocked out by a mute button. What makes complete sense outside of the courtroom has no bearing on the legalistic jury instructions, the narrowed presentation of evidence, the presumptions of innocence and the burdens of proof that guide criminal trials no matter how simple and plain the facts appear or indisputable the outcome.
From outside the courtroom, the legal system often looks as if it has no grip on the truth, or even worse, any concern or respect for the truth. But legal trials are, in fact, less interested in what is true than what can be proven.
By now legal experts have lectured us on the difference between saying that Casey Anthony was innocent and that the prosecution was unable to prove that she was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and that's why the jury voted to acquit. But most reasonable, sensible, decent people are still left morally outraged by this purportedly correct legal outcome, and they won't easily be persuaded to appreciate the difference -- nor should they.
It bears noting that such travesties of justice happen less frequently in other western
nations. Instead of having both sides fight a zero sum game, the winner-take-all, scorch the earth contests that make American trials similar to its sporting spectacles, other countries place a higher value on having both the prosecution and the defense work to uncover the truth. After all, everyone in society benefits when the truth is known and injustice is not allowed to prevail -- in this case, the memory of Caylee Anthony, especially.