As I was awaiting the jury's verdict in the Casey Anthony trial today, I couldn't help but think back to the fall of 1995. Sixteen years ago, the country was waiting on the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial. These two situations are so strikingly similar, but the audience - me - so markedly different. Then, I was a wide-eyed 11 year old, a girl who thought that if you were charged with murder, you must certainly be guilty. Today, I am a 27 year old and the proud owner of one law degree and 16 years of life experience. Then, it was easy to see things as black or white. Today, I know that life sometimes is lived out in the grey area between the two. I still remember the utter helplessness and disbelief upon hearing "not guilty" 16 years ago - and, to an extent, I relived that same disbelief today.
But therein lies the difference between an 11 year old school girl and a 27 year old with a law degree. The funny thing about life is that some lessons can't be unlearned. Some concepts can't be unheard. An overwhelming majority of this country believes Casey Anthony murdered her daughter - and you can count me as part of that majority. I say I only relived that feeling "to an extent" because of what I know now. Then, beyond a reasonable doubt was nothing more than a string of words, an abstract concept, something the actors playing lawyers said on television. Today, beyond a reasonable doubt is something I know, something I was tested on, asked about, expected to be able to explain. And one thing I know about it is that it is the highest burden that one can be asked to prove -higher than clear and convincing evidence and higher than a preponderance of the evidence. This standard requires that the prosecution prove that no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts, except that the defendant committed the crime, thereby overcoming the presumption that one is innocent until proven guilty.
A lot of people want to blame our justice system for this seeming miscarriage of justice. I suppose when angered, it is easy to point fingers and lay blame. And what bears the brunt of this blame is the system. I, however, believe in the system. Maybe it's because I went to law school, maybe it's because I am unfailingly idealistic, maybe it's because I'm naive -- but maybe, just maybe, it's because the system works. We have a justice system that presumes innocence, that provides for the rights of all who come before it, that strives for fairness in light of the immense burden placed upon it. But it is a system run by people. And we are, after all, just people. People capable of making sound and independent decisions, but also capable of falling under the influence and opinion of others. People committed to justice and reason, but people who are not impervious to passion and emotion. We are also people who want to believe, but are quick to mistrust. So it is with the general perception of the justice system. I think people find disturbing and frightening the possibility that the guilty will go free, allowed to walk among us, as if their crime did not occur. But are people as righteously indignant at the possibility that the innocent will be locked away, restricted in every way, for something they did not do?
But I digress. I think the point of this blog is to remember, if only momentarily, what it was like to watch the outcome of a trial with no knowledge of who was who, what was what, or what anything actually meant. I was taken back to a time when "not guilty" meant "innocent," if only to me. When I started law school just shy of 3 years ago, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I don't think it ever dawned on me that I would no longer be a simple spectator to anything in a courtroom. For weeks, we have been watching the trial, discussing the questions asked of the witnesses, critiquing the theories of both sides, and speculating as to what the jurors might be thinking. Without a law degree, I might have been able to express my outrage at the outcome of this trial a little louder, with a little more shock, and a lot more emphasis. But this is no longer then case. I must admit, about 5 minutes before the verdict was read, I felt in my gut that the jury would file back in and, in unanimous agreement, find Casey Anthony "not guilty." But I'm old enough, and wise enough, now to know that means anything but "innocent."
Murder most foul, as in the best it is,/ But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.
-W. Shakespeare, Hamlet, I.v.28-29