Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Legal System and Casey Anthony

Today the Casey Anthony case was decided and she was acquitted by a jury, who found her only guilty of lying to law enforcement. It is a rather huge decision, in terms of its national attention and the impact on the family of the deceased infant Caylee Anthony. On unequivocal terms, the death of that infant is a devastating and heinous crime, justice requires that the offender be punished but sometimes it isn't that simple.

Our entire legal system is founded on a few simple yet highly evolved and revolutionary principles. I will only address two of the major ones, the ones I won't address are right to a speedy trial, prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and others. I will primarily address innocent till proven guilty, right to public trial and beyond a reasonable doubt.

First and I think most important is that innocence is assumed until proven guilty. This apparently simple concept is the core of the brilliance of the American system of criminal law (has its origins in English Common Law and according to some in Theological laws but again a much deeper discussion than needed here). We assume the person's innocence so as to assure, the best we can, that we do not convict someone wrongly. The founders understood that public opinion and legal presumptions are entirely relevant and important when determining the guilt or innocence of anyone. The founders knew that they cannot control and use government to influence public opinion but they knew they can try and ensure that the governmental process can be formed to try to be more objective.

The second main principle is that criminal trials are to be public. A major reason for this principle was to ensure that there was total openness and accountability to the process. It was a way to allow the public to engage in the understanding of the process and also to protect the legal system through public accountability. The public would be able to see clearly how the judge and prosecutors/police should operate and if they deviated from the accepted process then there is something wrong, which they could correct through legislative action or even criminal action. It is a protection of the process and the system against internal deviation and miscarriage of the process and justice.

The third principle is the one of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This principle means that the evidence must show/prove beyond any normal doubt or just any doubt that the suspect is guilty. It has to be reasonable doubt, meaning clearly that the doubt itself must be reasonable and that the evidence goes beyond such a doubt. It is as close to 100% certainty as one can have or better put one could have. The evidence must be of such magnitude that any reasonable person looking at it would have certainty beyond such a reasonable doubt. It is again to ensure that reasonable people would reasonably agree that such evidence is proof of the guilt not merely an inference or probability of guilt.

From the first principle and third principle we derive subsequent rules and precepts, which are all applied to make sure the goal of the system is PROVE through evidence the guilt of a suspect. One of these rules are the rules of evidence such as inadmissible of hearsay, establishing proper standards of allowing evidence in and others. Everyone knows generally what hearsay is, legally (in many jurisdictions) it is defined as an "out of court statement made by other than the declarant that is offered for the truth in the matter asserted". This simply means any statement by a person, who is not the witness or declarant, made outside of court to prove something that is asserted in court. For example, I say "john told me that erick hit steve", that statement is hearsay because I didn't observe the event and have no source of actual knowledge of it directly. This is applied because it helps prevent mere innuendo, gossip or false evidence from entering into court and tainting the mind of the jury. All these rules are in place to remove bias and prejudice from the system, its not perfect but it is an viable and valiant attempt to do so.

Now, the above is a very brief and utterly superficial explanation about the legal foundations, ideas and principles about our legal system. I say legal system and not justice system because the idea is that if we have a good and strong legal process then justice will more likely occur without injuring or punishing an innocent person. Justice isn't the goal of the system it is a byproduct of a process. If we focus on only our perceived ideas of who is guilty and who isn't, we will inevitably convict an innocent person, it is why the the court says in Coffin v. United States that is better to let "5, 10, 20, or 100 guilty men go free than for one innocent man to be put to death".

It is with the above basis I will address the Casey Anthony case. Lets see what the prosecution proved in the case, not what we believe merely on our own notions and preconceived notions. First people believe that DNA evidence proves that Casey Anthony killed her infant daughter. Here is the actual numbers, the test only examined 752 base pairs of DNA receptors out of 16,500 plus base pairs, which is only around 5% of the base pairs. The DNA evidence isn't a certainty here and generally speaking DNA evidence cannot prove a crime but only an act or specific facts. More often than not, DNA can only disprove a believed "fact" such as x person did have sex with y but it can't prove that such sex was rape or consensual. Or the blood at the scene with Z% belonged to A and did not belong to B. The DNA evidence didn't show anything beyond a reasonable doubt merely the infant was present in the vehicle not whether it was alive or dead at the time.
In Casey's case, the chemical tests only showed that out 5 chemical compounds out of 400 were present in the trunk of the car, meaning something decomposed no evidence that it was human decomposition or another animal or even food stuff. Basically, it doesn't show what was decomposing, we have to make that inference based on our preconceived ideas. So both these threads of evidence don't prove conclusively one way or another.

Moreover, there was no eyewitness testimony or evidence nor was there a confession or any other testimony linking Casey and the death/murder. There is no physical evidence like DNA, blood, fingerprints or physical belongings to link Casey to the scene of the location of the body. In other words, all the evidence presented was circumstantial not direct. Circumstantial evidence cannot in most cases prove all elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt it is merely additional evidence that is present to support direct evidence, it is necessary evidence not sufficient evidence. Meaning, it is supportive evidence not enough to convict or prove on its own all elements (it can lead one to infer a fact but not establish a fact on its own; I don't want to delve into theories of direct evidence and reliability and so on as it gets too complicated)

The legal system worked today but justice did not. I do believe based on the evidence that Casey did probably commit the crime and kill her daughter but I don't know beyond a reasonable doubt. I just can't know based on the evidence presented by the prosecutors. Sometimes justice isn't served by our system of law but I think it is much better for the system to protect the innocent rather than punish all the guilty. Anytime an innocent person is wrongly convicted or punished, justice is hurt more. The violation of an innocent person can never be returned, the time they spend in jail never given back, the life they led could have lived will never come to be. Justice isn't merely about punishing the guilty but making sure that innocents are not wronged.

Casey did probably commit this crime and I want her to be punished but not at the risk of having a system that would punish innocents. We should be upset at Caylee isn't going to get proper justice for her death but its not the system we should be upset with, this isn't a case of the system going bad/wrong, it is those cases when thousands of black men were convicted merely due to their skin color or when prosecutors focus more on a conviction rather than serving the process that system goes wrong. DNA evidence is freeing innocent people now, people who were in jail for decades for a wrongful conviction due to eye witness problems, prosecutorial misconduct and so on. This case is a momentary defeat for justice for Caylee but a victory for our system that adhered to its principles requiring PROOF beyond a reasonable doubt, innocence isn't something to take lightly it is the most important ideal to protect and our legal system more often than not does a great job of doing so but when it doesn't it is up to us the public to fix it and change the law and its process to close that potential to convict innocents.

Any comments or criticisms?

No comments: