Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Trial by media

A hot topic in the US, but pretty much nowhere else at the moment, is the end of the trial of Casey Anthony, which found her not guilty of murdering her daughter, but guilty of lying to police investigators.

The story is tragic, and easily told. A few years ago, Casey Anthony disappeared with her daughter Caylee. When Casey re-appeared, her mother Cindy wanted to see Caylee, but Caylee always seemed to be unavailable, usually with the nanny. Eventually, Cindy reported the child missing. A few months later, the badly decomposed remains of Caylee were found. The “nanny” did in fact, exist, but had apparently never met the child. Unsurprisingly, Casey was arrested and put on trial. She has now been acquitted of murder.

Now, here’s an important thing to consider as you read on: I do not know whether Casey is guilty or innocent. This is a very important point: I do not know. For all I know, she could have killed her daughter in cold blood. Or perhaps through negligence, and then panicked and tried to cover it up. Then again, for all I know, she could be innocent.

The disturbing thing, for me at least, is that pretty much all of America appears to be convinced that Casey Anthony is guilty, guilty, guilty; or (even more disturbingly) probably guilty, but deserves to be found guilty even if she isn’t. Right now, America is a nation of people choking on their breakfast cereals because a woman who obviously has blood on her hands is walking away a free woman, albeit with a stain on her character.

A representative tweet from a certain Igor Zag captures the mood of the nation: “So your [sic] saying in the state of Florida I can commit murder but can’t lie to the police?”

No, Mr Zag. “They” (whoever “they” are) are saying that the prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Ms Anthony murdered her daughter. You see, that’s how the justice system works in any democratic and civilized country: innocent until proven guilty. And that’s the principle that means you can’t get dragged off the street and imprisoned simply because you can’t account for your movements on the night in question. And it’s the same principle that saves you from lynch mobs.

In most other western democracies, this would be news, and it may be surprising news; but it wouldn’t cause such a display of public outrage. There’s a vague hope that the jury got it right, and that if they did, the person who actually did commit the murder can be found and brought to justice. And for the most part, that’s all you’d hear.

America is, as usual, a special case. This trial was given wall-to-wall coverage by the press. Everything about the trial, in true American style, was reported on and made public. And because America has no sub judice laws, the media could say what they liked about the whole affair. And the considered opinion of the media right from the start was that Casey Anthony is clearly guilty. And because Americans up and down the country have been obediently consuming the hyped-up sensationalised stories fed to them by media outlets vying for their attention, that is what America firmly believes. That the jury, shielded from everything the big news corporations, decided either that Ms Anthony is innocent, or at least that the evidence is not as clear-cut as the media would have us believe, speaks volumes. The evidence wasn’t convincing. What convinced most of America of the woman’s guilt clearly wasn’t in the evidence itself, no matter how many of them will protest otherwise.

The distasteful aspect of this — well, one of the most distasteful aspects — is that even if the accused is in fact guilty, a “not guilty” verdict is the best thing that could have happened for the media, which is looking more and more like a big reality show than a collection of responsible news outlets reporting, you know, the news. Already there are promises of interviews with jurors, interviews with lawyers involved in the case, and Fox News’s Geraldo Rivera is even boasting about how Ms Anthony’s ex-fiancĂ© has told him who Caylee’s father is (but to find out, of course, you have to go to his blog and watch the video). TV stations and newspapers can be assured that the nation is incensed enough to hang on their every word and continue to consume. This tragedy is worth millions, perhaps even billions, to them, and this circus has just been handed the best free advertising it could have wished for. I predict they will spend the next few days or weeks, possibly even months if nothing new comes along, trying to out-scoop each other. They are, in fact, making a killing out of a killing, and that depresses me more than I can say.

So basically, Mr Zag, and all those threatening to throw darts at the jurors or cast Casey Anthony into a bottomless pit, you’re missing the point, mainly because you have been manipulated in the most obscene way. The jury reached the verdict not because they’re stupid or blind, but because, with all due respect, they have a much more intimate knowledge of the trial and everything that went on than you do or ever will; and because they were protected from the sensationalist and prejudiced reporting from the big media companies. It may be the “wrong” verdict in the sense that perhaps, after all, Ms Anthony is guilty; but the fact that the court came to a decision so at odds with public opinion is proof positive that the case was judged purely on the evidence presented to court and was not influenced by the baying mob, and that, America, is exactly how it was designed to function and exactly how it should be.

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