Earlier this month, the country was astonished when a not-guilty verdict was returned by a Hillsborough County jury (in an Orange County courtroom) in the murder case against Casey Anthony. Anthony was notoriously charged with the killing of her two-year-old daughter Caylee three years ago.
The media coverage of the case has been staggering since before the child’s body was even recovered. Many times, it appeared as if Anthony had been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion – even before a single juror was seated, before a single piece of evidence was presented.
And yet, a not-guilty verdict. This, we feel strongly, is definitive evidence not that the American justice system is broken but that it works exactly as it is designed.
In light of all of the evidence and analysis by television personalities, how did this verdict happen?
We can only speculate at this point exactly what the jury considered (although several of the jurors have spoken with the press now). But the biggest problem with the State’s case was lack of physical evidence of a murder at all.
Prosecutors argued that Anthony covered her daughter’s nose and mouth with duct tape to kill her. Anthony’s defense attorneys argued that Caylee drowned accidentally and that Anthony’s father covered the accident up. (Caylee’s skeletal remains were found six months after she disappeared and the coroner was unable to pinpoint a cause of death.)
The State tried to make their case from an aggregation of circumstantial evidence: the purported smell of a dead body in the trunk of Anthony’s car; a hair from Caylee, which forensic evidence tied to a decomposing body; computer searches for “chloroform” and “neck breaking;” thirty days of partying and lying by Anthony after her daughter disappeared.
The burden of proof rests on the prosecution and it is a very high burden. Anthony’s defense attorneys successfully argued that the State’s proof that Anthony told lies to investigators trying to find the little girl did not equate to proof that she committed murder.
Juries are provided with detailed instructions which guide their deliberations. For each charge they are considering, an instruction requires them to find that each and every element of the crime has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. And their verdict must be unanimous.
They are instructed that:
First Degree Murder Instructions
The Anthony jury received jury instructions from which they considered first-degree murder (as well as three “lesser included offenses” of second-degree murder, manslaughter and third-degree felony murder), aggravated child abuse, aggravated manslaughter of a child and providing false information to a law enforcement officer. Anthony was found not-guilty of all but the providing false information charges.
In order to find Anthony guilty of first-degree murder, they had to find that the State proved the elements of first-degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt. Namely, the jury had to find (1) that Caylee was dead, (2) that the death was caused by the criminal act of Casey Anthony and that (3) the killing was premeditated.
Alternately, the jury could have found Anthony guilty of first-degree murder if they determined beyond a reasonable doubt that (1) Caylee was dead and (2) the death occurred as a consequence of and while Casey Anthony was engaged in the commission of the crime of Aggravated Child Abuse OR the death occurred as a consequence of and while Casey Anthony was attempting to commit Aggravated Child Abuse, and (3) Casey Anthony was the person who actually killed Caylee.
Lesser Included Crimes
When the jury determined that the elements for first-degree murder had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, they should have also considered whether the evidence proved that Anthony committed acts which would constitute a “lesser included crime” under the law. In this case, the jurors considered whether Anthony was guilty of second-degree murder, manslaughter or third-degree felony murder.
The jury instructions for each of those crimes also required proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Caylee was dead and that some act or omission of Casey Anthony (whether intentional or not) caused Caylee’s death.
Based upon the few comments that the jurors have made to the media, it appears that they were very concerned by Anthony’s behavior after the purported drowning death of her daughter and they were concerned by the demeanor of her family members when they testified. They unanimously found Anthony guilty of lying to the police during the investigation. Even with all of that negative evidence and reaction, they still could not find her guilty of the homicide.
It seems that they were unable to find that Anthony had caused her daughter’s death (regardless of the level of legal culpability) beyond a reasonable doubt based upon the evidence and testimony presented.
“I did not say she was innocent,” one juror told ABC News. “I just said there was not enough evidence. If you cannot prove what the crime was, you cannot determine what the punishment should be.”
The jurors then did exactly the right thing. Despite the verdict of the court of public opinion, despite their personal emotions and inclinations, they followed the court’s instructions and considered only the evidence that was presented to them by the State (and by the defense). Based upon that evidence alone, they felt that the State had not met its burden of proof and returned the only appropriate verdict under the law.