Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Casey Anthony, for Anyone Who Wants to Know

The court of blog-opinion fell down on Casey Anthony's guilt last year. The court of Facebook and office-opinion today confirmed her guilt, but the actual court found that there was reasonable doubt, enough to question whether she did it.

While I'm not sure if Casey Anthony did kill her child, I think the decision was just. I'd like to put this case in the context of others we've heard of recently: the stories of caregivers sent to jail for the deaths of children when they were indeed innocent (see this week's Frontline - downloadable for free in podcast form). Reasonable doubt is designed to prevent wrongful conviction and the fact that the jury decided to not convict, even when the evidence seemed strong, demonstrates that this system can work. In other words, having a criminal get away with a crime on occasion is not so bad as wrongly punishing the innocent.

Of course, the other side to this is that it's okay to punish an innocent person when more bad people are caught (so, if you catch a bad guy who would hurt 100 people but also convict 2 people who don't hurt anyone, you've done good). Those who find the Casey Anthony verdict wrong come down on this side. I don't.

Here's the thing: one of the best things about American democracy, the thing I can really get behind, is the idea of innocent until proven guilty. I'm no lawyer, so I can't get into the nitty gritty of the law, but from a theoretical perspective, this is one of the neat things that writers like Locke and Hobbes made possible. By stating that there is no one person who is more good (both from a moral and class perspective) than another, they paved the way for a society that (at least in theory), says that people are not inherently good or evil. So, when bad things happen, you have to give people the benefit of the doubt. This is an amazing thing because it means that you have a whole world of justification open to you as well as a range of things that are good and things that are bad, and you are neither until a group of your peers decides this. And even then they aren't calling you good or bad, they're saying that you broke the law and must be punished for the benefit of society.

When you don't come at justice from this perspective, you start filing people into categories that are dangerously restrictive. The reality, of course, if that we do file people away into very troublesome categories, but because the theoretical background of the United States is so imbued with this neat idea that people start out as citizens worthy of legal protection, we sometimes do the right thing, like increasing voting rights or supporting marriage equality. Were we to take this idea away and decide that a woman like Casey Anthony is inherently bad, then we start down a road I'd rather not explore.

So what I'm saying here is that while a woman might have gotten away with murder, there is something that makes me feel just a wee bit hopeful that our justice system can actually decide that reasonable doubt exists and fall on the side of deciding that someone is not a bad person.

Of course, if you ask me about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn story, I'll write something completely different.

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