Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Pitchforks and Torches in Orlando

Article by Joe Bob Briggs.


NEW YORK—I tried. I really tried. I wanted to be the only person in America who didn’t know anything about the Caylee Anthony murder case.

I intentionally avoided it whenever it would come on cable TV. I have such an aversion to that caterwauling condescending public scold of a schoolmarm named Nancy Grace that I took Headline News Network off my remote control so that it automatically skipped to the next channel anytime I was surfing. Sometime in the past year they apparently gave Nasal Nancy a 24-hour show dedicated to the reinstatement of flesh-flaying, foot-roasting, and iron-maiden impalement for all criminal defendants. Her acolytes spread Nancy Graceisms all over the Internet through articles predicated on the idea that innocent victims’ blood has morphed into vengeance-blogging directed by the Almighty. But as I said, I managed to step aside. Whenever someone would post a photo of Casey Anthony with some slogan like, “Look at this slut partying while her baby is dead,” I would move onto the next subject or delete the email without answering.

And then when they finally got through the investigation, the arrest, the years of pre-trial hearings, the actual trial, and the verdict, I thought I was finally safe.

How wrong I was.

Not only is Casey Anthony still on my TV screen, but Nancy Grace has migrated to every other network so she can keep talking about it even if you have your remote control set so that you never have to listen to Nancy Grace.

“The way it works here, the verdict is the verdict. It can’t be wrong; it’s the verdict.”

The thing is over, people. She’s not guilty. Not guilty means what it’s always meant. It doesn’t mean innocent; it means not proven guilty. Give it a rest.

I don’t get the “party slut” emails anymore. What I get now are the “Caylee’s Law” emails. Vote for Caylee’s Law. Go to your Congresspeople and tell them to pass Caylee’s Law. Caylee’s Law says that if your child is missing and you don’t report it, you’re guilty of a crime. If you’re planning to kill your child and hide the body and spend a lot of time covering up the crime, you won’t be able to do that anymore because at some point you’ll slap your forehead and go, “Damn! I can’t hide this body! I can’t destroy evidence! Caylee’s Law says I have to report the kid missing right now!”

It’s the most meaningless addition to the criminal statutes since “hate crime” laws. Those were invented under the assumption that if you simply murdered your wife or husband or business partner, you probably didn’t hate them, but if you yelled, “You stupid wop!” right before pulling the trigger, your obvious Italophobia should qualify you for 30 extra years. Every decade or so some collective insanity runs through America’s various legislatures and we suddenly have a raft of statutes dedicated to making sure that nobody wearing dark gloves and fleeing in a white Bronco on a Friday afternoon ever again goes free for lack of DNA evidence in a double murder case in Brentwood. And we call it the “Justice for Nicole Law.”

There have been lots of comparisons to the O. J. verdict, which makes no sense to me because that verdict was widely celebrated, not reviled. I was on the #6 subway train when the O. J. verdict was announced, and there was universal cheering and shouting and hooting about “O. J. is innocent! O. J. is innocent! They let O. J. go!” Unless I’m missing something, the Casey Anthony verdict has inspired the opposite response. There were people fainting on the streets outside the Orange County Courthouse. There were mobs massed outside the jail when she was released, holding up placards reading “No Justice For Caylee!” in their non-pitchfork other hand. When her SUV pulled away from the jail last weekend, they had one of those traffic copters chasing her down the freeway like it was a high-speed chase! For all I know the copter pilot is still on the case. I know that “Casey sightings” have been bandied about the Web. Reporters have filed stories about mysterious women seen boarding private planes in the middle of the night, begging the question, “If you were able to prove that Casey Anthony was in a particular place at a particular time, what exactly would the story be? That she’s still breathing?”

Like most reporters, I spent my early years hanging around courthouses and covering murder trials, and there is almost always a rabble outside. Sometimes the rabble is there to ensure “justice” for the dead person—justice being a term that everyone in a courthouse constantly uses for reasons that have an inverse relation to the Aristotelian meaning of the term—and on some rare occasions the rabble is there to ensure “justice” for the unfairly accused defendant.

So what are we taught to do in Journalism 101?

Acknowledge and ignore. Acknowledge that the rabble is outside. Write about it if it threatens to contaminate the jury. Ensure that we the media don’t become part of the story.

I never went to journalism school anyway, so I wasn’t around when they apparently added Journalism 102, which can be summed up by reporters’ attitudes at the Anthony trial:


I actually heard trained professional journalists saying things like this: “Many people believe that Casey Anthony literally got away with murder, including this reporter.

Julie Chen, news anchor on the CBS daytime series The Talk and wife of CBS president and CEO Les Moonves, broke into tears when she reported the verdict. She couldn’t continue with the newscast, so the regular panelists helped her out, all agreeing that her reaction was justified.

The usual things that you write about when you have an unpopular verdict are timeless. They haven’t changed for a hundred years. I guess I need to put them down here, since very few other journalists have pointed them out since the verdict, but it goes like this:

1. The American system is set up so that we would rather see the occasional guilty person go free than a single innocent person be punished.

2. “Reasonable doubt” is a legal concept requiring acquittal. As soon as the reasonable-doubt standard is reached, the defendant must go free.

3. Juries are always instructed not to expose themselves to, or be influenced by, anything that’s not introduced into evidence. In this case Judge Belvin Perry did an outstanding job of keeping the jury totally immune from the media circus, the street circus, and the Nancy Grace Scolding Schoolmarm Circus. In other eras Judge Perry would be getting back-slapped by his colleagues for pulling off the impossible, because there wasn’t a single spot on that jury, not even an alternate.

4. “Not guilty” does not mean innocent. “Innocent” is a concept for theologians, and most of them have said it doesn’t exist anyway.

5. Juries don’t vote guilty in a death-penalty case unless all questions have been answered. They hate ambiguity and loose ends. Don’t knock this unless you’ve been there.

There’s always a rabble, and there’s almost always a feeling on the public’s part that the jury got it wrong. This happens even when the public agrees with the verdict. The jury got one thing right but missed three others. The verdict is correct but the sentence is too light. The sentence is correct but it’s for the wrong reasons.

That’s why the public doesn’t get to decide.

If we were in Russia, the state could appeal the acquittal. If we were in France, there would be secret ways an acquittal could have been avoided. If we were in many other countries around the world, you could bribe some people and cause a retrial.

And I’m hearing all the “buts.” I know about the “buts.” But what about her claim that her child was kidnapped by Zanny the Nanny? But what about the duct tape? But what about all Casey’s lies about her job? But what about the smell of death in the trunk? But what about the chloroform Google search? But what about that “Bella Vita” tattoo? But what about her lies about Caylee’s paternity? But what about the fact that she was partying during the months Caylee was missing?

I know all this. So does the jury. The jury is not wrong. The way it works here, the verdict is the verdict. It can’t be wrong; it’s the verdict. I’ve explained this all my life in various contexts, but never before have I thought it was necessary to explain it to reporters, much less to reporters who are also lawyers, much less to a new reporter/lawyer mutant species called Nancy Grace.

What’s going on here is a return to the law that was practiced in pre-Christian medieval Europe when a defendant’s fate was placed in the hands of the Avenging Kinsman. The dead person’s Avenging Kinsman—the wife, the husband, the mother, the father, the guy who won the paternity suit so he could file wrongful death—was allowed to kill the offender with his own hands, usually after a number of interested locals (those people on the Orange County Courthouse steps) had gathered evidence and presented it as fact. This was so there would be exactly one dead person on each side of that ledger in our minds that keeps track of who might have “gotten away with murder.” If the ledger is askew, you end up with Hatfield-McCoy cycles of revenge killing.

Fortunately in the 15th century the Brits kicked the Avenging Kinsman out of the courtroom and said henceforth we would have a prosecutor representing the state’s interests. The jury would no longer be the people on the courthouse steps who have an express interest in the trial; it would be their opposite—people who knew nothing about the case at all. In other words, they wiped out “victim’s rights.” The victim’s feelings were something for a priest or a psychiatrist, but not for a courtroom.

What we didn’t realize is that Nancy Grace would enroll at the Hildegard of Bingen School of Law sometime in the late 20th century and bring it all back.

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