Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Trial by Public Opinion?

It appears that the furor over the jury's verdict in the Casey Anthony trial continues, especially on the Internet. Popular opinion is running strongly in favor of the theory that because most of us find her distasteful she deserves to be punished, and the jury should have factored in that dislike. I even saw one person in a comment thread on Facebook write that public opinion should have more of a place in the judicial system.

I don't think I've ever seen or heard a more ignorant opinion! Our jurisprudential system works on the rule of law, not on mob rule. You're tried by a jury of your peers, and that jury comes to its decision based on evidence presented by both the prosecution and the defense. And if you don't like the jury's decision you can appeal to the next higher level in the appellate system.

In the case of Casey Anthony, the jury decided that the prosecution didn't make its case. They didn't declare her innocence, they declared that the prosecution failed to prove she killed her daughter. The lack of evidence as to the cause of Caylee Anthony's death cast reasonable doubt on the prosecution's case that she was deliberately murdered by her mother. This is how cases in the United States are tried: on the evidence. Not on wishes, hunches, and wannabes, but on provable, observable evidence. Cold, hard facts. Public opinion has no place in the courtroom, only evidence.

People have been hysterically keening that our judicial system is broken because Casey Anthony has gone free. On the contrary, this case proves that it works very well indeed. William Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765 - 1769), considered the backbone of judicial philosophy and practice in Great Britain and North America, wrote what has since become known as Blackstone's Formulation: "...better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." This in turn derives from 12th Century legal theorist Moses Maimonides' exposition on Genesis 18:23 - 32, where he states (referring to God's promise to spare Sodom and Gommorrah for the sake of ten righteous men), "it is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death." This legal philosophy guarantees that care is taken to approach each case with a fair and balanced mind. That someone some of us think is guilty occasionally slips free is only further proof that Blackstone's Formulation is in operation and the system is far from broken.

For those who seriously think that public opinion should carry some weight in a court case, consider how badly that approach has worked throughout history. The most famous is the case of a certain itinerant rabbi in 1st Century Palestine, one Yeshu'a ben Yosef; he wandered throughout the area urging the people to be better neighbors, to feed the hungry, care for the sick, house the homeless, forgive those who offend you, etc. Unfortunately there were people who considered this rabbi a threat, and during the Passover week blindsided him and captured him, taking him to their Roman overlord, the procurator Pontius Pilate, accusing him of treason against the Roman Emperor. Pilate examined the evidence and came to the conclusion that the rabbi was guilty of nothing more than annoying some pompous religious leaders. But those leaders were adamant that the rabbi be punished. So Pilate decided to put the question to the people, in this case the crowd gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover holiday. And they, pumped up by those offended religious leaders, shouted "String 'im up!"

Mob rule declared Yeshu'a ben Yosef, who we now know as Jesus, guilty and decreed his execution. An innocent man was killed because the existing judicial process was abandoned for public opinion, and that ruling has resonated down through history.

Now... Do you really think public opinion should have any place in a courtroom?

© 2011 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. oooo, well said Roy. you make your point.

  2. Few things could be more dangerous than mob rule, and while courts should be detached from public opinion, all too often they are not particularly in districts where judges are elected. It certainly appears Casey Anthony was guilty as sin; however, from early in the coverage, the prosecution presented a horrible strategy creating way too many areas to foster reasonable doubt. Had they stuck to the time-line, motive, opportunity, etc. and stayed away from the Voodoo sciece, they would have done better. They over played their hand, lost their focus, and let someone who should have fried go free. She was't found "innocent" but not guilty -- the prosecution did not prove its case effectively.

  3. No. I am always cognizant that the jury has been exposed to far more data than I have and, since I get most of my data through mass media, I can be sure that what reaches me is only the most inflammatory.

    Why? Because the media is about getting attention, not justice.

  4. Beautifully expressed and argued. Good for you, Roy. The temptation is to say, "off with her head" just because we don't like her.

  5. I'm with you all the way on this one.

  6. I agree 100% Roy.Mob Rule is not subtle.We have very much the same issue here in the UK at the moment about the reintroduction of the Death Penalty.A majority of the population would probably be in favour but (for once!) most politicians (of all stripes) are against.

  7. I admit I'd not heard of this case before today, but the whole things sounds a mess.
    Trial by media or public opinion is never a good thing.
    Good argument, Roy.

  8. It hasn't been widely publicised over here but I'm aware of the cast. Couldn't agree more. The judicial system isn't perfect but recent events in London and other English cities show what happens when the mob takes over. People are buoyed when in a crowd and justice thrown out the window. A flawed system is still a system. I do think however, that in the US far more details of these trials are publicised before a decision is made which makes you wonder how a jury's objectivity is affected.