“Mike Spindell, guest blogger”
Three years ago, the story of missing toddler Cayley Anthony became a media sensation. This was a story with all the elements of human drama. It had a pretty, young mother who appeared to be partying while her cute toddler went missing for 31 days. At the end of the 31 days, after having repeatedly lied to the grandparents about her child’s whereabouts the mother, Casey, admitted to her parents, Cindy and George that she didn’t know where the child was. She told them her mysterious “Nanny”, named “Zanny” had purportedly fled with the child for parts unknown. The Police were called and a media circus began.
The devoted Grandparents went on TV pleading for information about their missing child and setting up their own search “headquarters”. The daughters’ interviews with Police became increasingly bizarre as she lied incessantly about what had happened and even took them to her workplace, where after a period she admitted hadn’t worked there for two years. Phone pictures and videos surfaced of her inappropriately partying during the 31 days her child was missing. Photo’s and home videos of this cute child incessantly appeared on the TV in the vain hope that someone would recognize her. It was “the stuff that dreams are made of” for media people hawking their product. After months of searching and continual reportage the decomposed skeleton of the child was found in a wood, down the block from the Anthony’s home. Police had already arrested the mother, first for lying to them, obstruction of justice, Neglect. She made bail was arrested again on bad check charges, bailed and finally arrested for Felony Murder in October 2008. Check here for all the summary details without the emotion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Caylee_Anthony .
This trial has taken HLN, CNN’s trashy headline network into the ratings stratosphere: http://tv.ibtimes.com/casey-anthony-murder-trial-is-it-good-tv-it-is-for-hln/1099.html HLN became the network of record for this trial.
Here are some links to the HLN website to providing an idea of the quality of commentary and the coverage this trial is getting.
The guilt or innocence of the defendant is not for me to write, since I haven’t watched the entire trial from the jury’s perspective and I do firmly believe in the process of law. What has concerned me and what I think should interest readers here, is that the sensational coverage of the story degrades the public’s view of legal processes. The guest commentary is supplied by guest Judges (former), prosecutors, lawyers, a psychic, a psychologist, and others, offering critiques of the case, speculation about the witnesses and a verbal box score of the trial’s progress. Naturally, everyone opines about the defendant’s guilt or innocence.
It would be fair to say that with a sequestered jury, this is irrelevant to the disposition of the case. It’s not, however, the fairness of the trial that is of interest to me
Pre-trial publicity, evidentiary leaks and media circus could well have influenced this case before it began. There is a long history of this behavior in our history. In my lifetime from Caryl Chessman, to Sam Shephard to OJ and in many other instances pre-trial publicity affects outcome.
Besides the toxicity of pre-trial publicity, there is another factor that I’ve found very upsetting as I listen to the commentary on this case. For the sake of transparency, I must admit I’ve been one of the 4:00pm to 6:00pm viewers boosting HLN’s ratings. As a non-expert legal buff, I am fascinated on how the public focused away from the legal issues, such as “reasonable doubt” and towards the inanities such as Grandfather George Anthony’s alleged affair.
Average people, uninterested in the intricacies of our legal system, are thirsty for seamy details and use these to make up their minds on the guilt or innocence of the defendant. When we here use guilt or innocence, it is in the context of adherence to timeworn legal concepts. To the public it is a visceral matter and when someone who the majority believes is guilty, based on media accounts, is acquitted because the evidence falls short of surpassing “reasonable doubt”, outrage, and cynicism towards our legal system ensue. Members of that public will possibly called upon to man jury panels. They will take with them all the information provided by shallow, sensational punditry, a belief that the prosecution is always correct and an eye for details that may be irrelevant to their decisions.
Tomorrow, the final arguments will begin, the TV audiences will swell, and the public will watch in droves, probably already having decided guilt or innocence.
Sadly, their beliefs not be informed by an understanding of the legal process of a trial and they will feel vindicated or disappointed either way the verdict turns out, based on the rumblings of their “gut”. My own feeling is that there should not be a conviction of felony murder because the cause of death is uncertain and there are only unsubstantiated theories of motives and methods. Hey, but what do I know?
While I have pretensions to wisdom on occasion, I must admit bafflement on how we as a country can restrain sensationalistic pre-trial publicity and educate the general public on proper trial procedure, within the constraints of freedom of the press, which is so necessary in the maintenance of a democratic system. Given the wide scale disappearance of Civics curricula in our schools, in tandem with budget reductions, we are generally less educated in essential knowledge of the Law than in times past. How do we deal with this to maintain a society where justice, in its legal context, prevails?