“Aint nothing worse than them fokes we know to be guilty cuz they is in the courtroom atall gettin’ to go home same time the jury does.” Anon
Two criminal cases in the news this week point out a very important fact of conviction: Deciding guilt is a job for juries, not for news reporters.
In 1995, I was having my first cell phone installed in my car outside the local electronics emporium. The store owner came outside to report that the jury in the O.J. Simpson trial had rendered its opinion.
O.J. was a pro football and movie star. Also, he was a black guy accused of stabbing his beautiful white ex-wife (in those days that was a significant part of the story) and her boyfriend, and leaving them to bleed to death outside their home. We watched on live television as he made his way slowly down a California freeway in a white Ford Bronco, followed by more police cars than exist in the part of Pennsylvania where I now live, on his way to be arrested.
After months of televised fanfare and speculation, the jury said: Not Guilty.
The electronics store owner said a few more things not generally repeatable during the family hour, and went back into the store, slamming the door behind him.
In May this year, International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of raping a hotel maid. Much was made of him being snatched off a plane bound for Paris, France only minutes before takeoff. Experts were called to the cameras to declare him guilty. Then it turned out the maid lied.
Now a 31-year-old French journalist has come forward to make a similar accusation. Her mother, she says, told her to keep the alleged 2002 event quiet. It remains to be seen how that will turn out.
Tuesday, a jury in Florida decided Casey Anthony was not guilty of murdering her two-year-old daughter. According to the Tuesday evening news hawkers, observers across the nation were shocked and appalled. Quotes abound for TV cameras: “Millions of Americans across the country are in stunned disbelief … who cares for that baby … all that evidence … she’s absolutely guilty …,” the quotes keep coming. “I don’t understand how 12 people could let her get away with murder.”
Of course she was guilty. She was charged and put on trial, and that’s good enough for many of us.
Fortunately, something happens to our neighbors when they become jurors.
When they are prospective jurors, they are asked whether they have read or heard about the case. Some say yes, some say no.
They are asked whether they can listen to all the evidence and render an impartial decision. Those who are chosen say yes.
In more than 30 years as a journalist, I’ve spent considerable time in courtrooms, and as imperfect as it appears to be, this trial-by-jury thing we’ve got going is the best system currently in operation on the planet.
Before the trial, on the evidence listed in the newspaper and on television, some of the 12 eventually selected jurors could have been among those ready to bury the accused beneath the prison – or suspend the obviously guilty malefactor from a tall oak. I have sat in coffee shops and stood on street corners and heard the convictions come pouring forth, based solely on reports of the arrest.
In a courtroom, I have seen some of those people selected for jury duty, vow to listen to the evidence and decide impartially – and they do it.
Sometimes their verdict causes “millions of Americans” to go into shock. After all, we watched the slow motion car chase in 1995 on a California freeway, and know police would not have arrested O.J. if he hadn’t killed his ex-wife and her lover.
And we heard the prosecution’s version of the death of Casey Anthony’s daughter. After all, we reason, how could a mother wait a month to report her daughter missing? We are certain none of us would have failed to report our child missing, or avoided telling police the youngster had accidentally drowned in the family swimming pool.
The prosecutor gave it, we trust, his best effort, put the best spin he could on the evidence he had, and only the jury saw it all.
A district attorney once explained that even apparent confessions do not necessarily really equate to guilt. We rarely know why the accused, even after sentencing, admitted committing the crime.
In the end, none of us really know more than what we see, and sometimes even that is suspect. Any police investigator or news reporter can attest: ask three eyewitnesses what happened and chances are you’ll get five versions and a couple maybes.
Only two people know for certain whether Casey Anthony caused her daughter’s death – three if you count her eventual meeting at the Pearly Gates.
Photo by David Hogg
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