The internet exploded in anger, prayer, and petitions after the not-guilty verdict reached by the Casey Anthony jury. “The O.J. trial of this century” was a common refrain, mixed with varying degrees of sadness, hysteria, and rage. From the outside, (which is where you are if you weren’t on the jury), the case against this little girl’s mother appears rock-solid. Of course from further outside, (which is where I am), the case against the media prostitution of our criminal justice system appears more than rock-solid.
The death of Caylee Anthony was, and remains, a tragedy; but it is a tragedy far more common than we the people want to accept. It is also a tragedy the side-effects of which could prove catastrophic to our way of life. Our criminal justice system is robbed of efficiency, balance, and fairness when it is invaded by the sensationalizing, ratings-driven media of 21st Century America. Victims are exploited, police and prosecuters are abused, and the rights of the accused are trampled. Regardless of one’s feelings about this particular case, the sum of the situation is threatening to all. What is needed is perspective, not to minimize Caylee, but to bring into the light the full scope of the problem.
In 2008, Caylee Anthony was murdered. A surprising number of Americans know her name, her picture, and the details of her case (as related by the media via communications with adversarial legal teams). Caylee, however, wasn’t alone that year. In 2008, 1,709 children were murdered (including the little girl pictured at the top), more than 500 were under the age of 5 at their time of death. How many of them have you heard of? How many of those children have suffered and died in the shadows? More to the point, how many of them have driven revenue streams at the major networks?
The last question goes, of course, to the heart of issue number one; we the people don’t care about an issue unless the media cares about the issue. Caylee was adorable, and her mother (if nothing else), is an immature, unbalanced, and self-centered train wreck. The combination makes for great ratings, and the promise of great ratings brings in the scavengers who hide behind the 1st Amendment. The media as an entity essential to the free society is circling the drain; it is being flushed by the profit necessity. But media elements are only as good, ultimately, as their most engaged audience. Millions were obsessively glued to their TV’s throughout the proceedings, and those millions took to their social networks in a demand for something, anything relating to vengeance, retribution, or a reckoning, after the not-guilty verdict. Public outcry rose in defense of the victim.
After the fire that killed the children of Todd Willingham in 1992, what part did public outcry play in stoking the flames of the media in Texas? What part of public outcry solidified the need for, and will of the police and DA to aggressively prosecute the father of those poor kids. Public outcry is a good thing, providing the public knows what it is crying about; that situation is far from the norm however, and far from certain. Almost two decades after the tragedy in Texas, the public had decided just as emphatically that Todd Willingham was innocent, as they had that Casey Anthony was guilty. We Americans are capable of believing Texas officials absolutely wrong, and Florida officials absolutely right. We are capable of absolute belief in our ability to judge evidence, but are so enraged by the Anthony verdict as to question the notion of jury trials.
The moral to this story, I would submit, is not that jury trials are bad. We Americans value the balance between judge and jury, and we used to value the absolute truth that we are innocent until proved guilty. But many of the same folks enraged by warrantless searches and Guantanomo incarcerations are perfectly willing to decide, in their wisdom, in the guilt of Casey Anthony. She may be guilty, but if you value the principles of our system, you must deal with her innocence. Public outcry paired with the toxic effect of media whores is a fatal combination for our criminal justice system. It leads to bad decisions that punish good people, and bad decisions that let the evil walk free. It also destroys the lives of many innocents guilty only of being associated with the wrong people at the wrong time.
In 21st Century America, a victim of crime can’t lodge an accusation without risking the full glare of the profit-driven media. The police can’t do their jobs without the full weight of America’s credulous and ill-trained amateur detectives (equipped with all of the experience that CSI and Law and Order affords) being brought to bear. Prosecutors can’t make considered decisions without Nancy Grace and her acolytes demanding their version of appropriate action. While the internet is alive with suggestions, demands, and petitions that aim to fix “the problem”, the real issues of the Anthony case (and Willingham before) go unattended. The justice system is not an entertainment vehicle; let’s work to take the media whores off the street.
The Rational Middle is listening…