Folks ask me what I think of the Casey Anthony trial.
I was, after all, both a trial and appellate judge. I ought to know something about the system of criminal justice. I ought to have a definitive opinion. Everyone else does.
Candidly, I didn’t pay much attention to the Casey Anthony trial. Maybe I’m he only one who didn’t.
Even so, it was hard not to notice. Fox News had a former judge assigned full time to attend and report on the case. All the networks were abuzz with Casey Anthony stories. There were reporters and analysts and replays ad nauseam.
I always wonder why some cases get blown up in the media and others don’t. Lorena Bobbitt. Now there’s a case that everyone talked about. I suppose there has to be something truly bizarre about a case before the media puts it on the front page.
Like a mother whose child is missing for a month who never calls the police.
Admittedly, Casey Anthony comes off as about the most despicable villain imaginable. A pathological liar. A selfish, self-centered, tramp, who seemed willing even to throw her family under the bus to save her own hide.
Indeed if the issue in the criminal trial were simply whether Casey Anthony was a bad person, the verdict would have been quick and guilty.
But of course, it wasn’t. We’re talking here about a court of law where the issue of guilt or innocence is determined according to rules of evidence that are designed to discover the truth without the corrupting influences of emotion, passion, prejudice or presumption.
Or media hype. Or Internet gossip.
That’s why the jury was sequestered. No TV. No radio. No newspapers. No access to the din of commentary and conjecture which inundated the rest of us.
Still, it is true that criminal trials are open to the public. The community has a right to know that those who violate the law are brought to the bar of justice. The accused has the right to a public trial as well. Nothing is more poisonous to liberty that a secret inquisition.
Courtroom doors have always been open. In the days of Abraham Lincoln, when judges and lawyers rode the circuit, people would flock to the courthouses and listen to the witnesses and the arguments of counsel.
It was, in the days before television and reality shows, a common form of entertainment. Trial lawyers were celebrities, and their jury speeches and trial strategies provided rich sources of conversation – and gossip - wherever people gathered.
Nothing has changed.
The Casey Anthony case was high drama. Suspense. Winners and losers. Everything the minions of television knock themselves out trying to invent and offer to the public.
Was it an important case? I don’t think so. Not in any legal sense. Indeed, I wager you can go down to the criminal courts building in any big city in America on any Monday morning and listen to testimony as gut retching and titillating as anything you heard in the Casey Anthony trial.
Celebrity is an ephemeral thing. Andy Warhol once predicted that everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes. Someone will ghost write Casey Anthony’s story and her book will outsell the Bible for three or four days. Twenty years from now, no one will know who Casey Anthony is or was.
Forty years ago, I was making speeches urging that television cameras be permitted in our courtrooms. At the time, I was considered a maverick, a dreamer, an upstart bent on destroying the dignity of American courtrooms. Judges and lawyers would grandstand. Witnesses would clam up. Juries would object.
As it turned out, I was on the side of the inevitable. For all the foolishness and distraction that TV coverage may involve, I still believe it is the right thing to do. If criminal trials are to be public, and virtually everyone agrees they should be, it makes no sense to limit the audience to the few dozen seats in the courtroom.
Even in the age of television, there is still, I suppose, a lot of competition for seats in the courtroom, but now the folks on the outside are not limited to second hand accounts of what is happening.
Just about everyone in America has an opinion about the guilt or innocence of Casey Anthony. I think that is a good thing. The people have watched their system at work. They have seen a solemn judge, fiery lawyers, a sullen defendant, jurors of every disposition and behavior, and a parade of witnesses to be believed or debunked.
When the trial began, Casey Anthony was presumed innocent. The jury has acquitted her, so the presumption still stands. But an acquittal is not absolution. Juries do not forgive sins.
Wrongdoing doesn’t sit well in the human heart. Eventually, somehow, some way, some day the price will be paid. Ask O.J.