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Sometimes justice is hard to take

Posted: July 14, 2011 2:22 p.m.
Updated: July 15, 2011 5:00 a.m.

As much as I tried to avoid being drawn in by the reality-TV drama known as the Casey Anthony trial, I was jerked alert by its conclusion, the most controversial murder acquittal since that of O.J. Simpson.

Florida jurors found Anthony guilty of four counts of lying to law enforcement officers but acquitted her of murder of her 2-year-old daughter Caylee.

Once again, national reaction was as furious as a herd of cats caught in a rainstorm. Once again, very big questions are raised about our justice system. Does the jury system work? Are the jurors, sequestered away from the wise counsel of TV commentators, less wise and intelligent than those of us who are watching it at home?

Like many others, I concluded that Casey Anthony would be found guilty at least of manslaughter. Her suspicious behavior persuaded me. Fortunately, our justice system requires more than suspicious behavior to win a conviction. As bitter as the pill may be to swallow sometimes, evidence matters.

At least nobody could accuse these jurors, as in the Simpson case, of being bedazzled by racial issues or the star appeal of a celebrity defendant. This jury had other problems to contend with. The most glaring problem was the lack of an exact cause of the young victim's death.

The "Tot Mom," as TV's Nancy Grace dubbed Casey Anthony, failed to report her child's disappearance for a month, until Caylee's grandmother reported the odor of "a dead body" in Casey's car. Casey claimed the child had been taken by a babysitter, who turned out to be a fiction.

When the body was found two months after the mom's indictment, duct tape was on her face but the body was too badly decomposed to determine the exact cause of death. Maggots were found in the trunk of Casey Anthony's car, but no DNA traces of Caylee. The mom said the smell had come from a bag of garbage.

Yet despite this and other suspicious clues, as the old saying goes, a trial is a contest to see who has the best lawyer. Her defense lawyers offered a new scenario at her trial, at which she did not take the witness stand, to explain the bizarre clues and twists in her story.

Casey's story changed again. They argued that Caylee died by accidental drowning in her grandparents' pool. In a panic, her father helped hide the body, including putting duct tape on her face to make it look like murder, defense attorneys said. Her parents denied these horrors, among other claims that were made against them. Indeed, it still makes little sense to me that her father, a former police officer, would try to cover up an accident by making it look like a murder.

But in the courtroom contest between dueling narratives, our system grants an advantage to the defense. It puts the burden on the prosecution to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

In this case, Caylee's body was so badly decomposed that the cause of death was never established. A search of the car trunk failed to turn up her DNA. Casey's lawyers argued that the smell came from a bag of garbage. That raised the prosecutors' burden. It is much more difficult to prove you know why somebody died when you can't quite prove how they died.

It also is not easy for a jury to send a young woman to death row or even a life sentence in prison when they know another narrative is just as plausible as the one prosecutors present.

It also probably did not help the prosecutors that we live in an era of popular TV detective shows that oversell the scientific crime-fighting skills and success rates of crime scene investigators. Where's TV's "CSI" when we need them in real life?

That lack of certainty left the defense free to come up with alternative scenarios. Their version only had to be plausible enough to cast a shadow of doubt on the prosecution's version of events.

Cases like this make it hard to stomach a system that would rather let the guilty go free than risk convicting the innocent. But it beats the alternative.

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