Revisiting the presumption of innocence

Casey Anthony was charged with the 2008 death of her daughter, Caylee. According to the jury, the prosecution’s case did not compel a verdict of guilty, choosing instead to acquit Anthony of the charge of first-degree murder. Now Anthony is not walking away from this case completely free, as she was convicted of several counts of lying to investigators, which are felony counts that will mean she spends several years in jail.

The one question that is still left in the balance: did she actually kill her daughter? Many will say yes, given the publicity around the case. Others will say "no", that the jury’s verdict means she is innocent. The jury’s verdict, however, compels all of us to say simply "we cannot know".

Too many people have too glorified a view of criminal court cases. Unfortunately television has had much to play in this, and there is a phenomenon called the "CSI effect" that has concerned a lot of prosecutors. For those who don’t know, the CSI effect basically means that jurors would expect the level of evidence and degree of thoroughness to be roughly equivalent to what is seen on shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Anything less would mean an acquittal. Obviously this is a burden of proof that can never be met, even with the greatest technology, but try telling that to jury members who have been watching CSI for the last decade.

But let’s get back to the criminal case.

In the eyes of many people with regard to a criminal case, the accused is either guilty or innocent, and if a jury returns a verdict of "Not Guilty", the accused is innocent, while a verdict of "Guilty" means the accused is actually guilty. This is not the case. Convictions are overturned, while better evidence after an acquittal can end up showing conclusively that the accused was actually guilty. Sometimes evidence is improperly gathered, and if the evidence is rather damaging but suppressed due to Fourth Amendment concerns, that alone could spell acquittal, whereas if proper guidelines and procedures were followed, it would’ve meant a conviction.

And during an interrogation with a police officer, a person can say the wrong thing and find themselves under arrest, in court, and then in jail following a conviction.

It is certainly not just black and white.

But the question of whether Casey Anthony is guilty is not ours to decide. She is entitled to be presumed innocent. Her acquittal compels it. Even if she was convicted, we must still presume her to be innocent due to the chance, however slight, that her conviction could have been overturned. Whether she is actually guilty is never a question for us to decide.

It is not for the court of popular opinion.

Yet too many think it is.

My wife and I were dining at a Perkin’s restaurant a week or so ago, and on a television nearby were news reports on the trial. One of the waitresses, actually our waitress, said prominently and clearly that Casey Anthony deserved the death penalty. The thought in the back of my mind was simply this: why do you not presume her to be innocent? How can you know she is guilty?

Simply speaking: you cannot. You do not know and you cannot know if she is guilty. This alone is what compels us to presume that any person accused of a crime is innocent.