Media Fixation on Casey Anthony

The fixation on Casey Anthony’s trial and acquittal is another case of routine media malpractice. Fuming commentators lambasted the purportedly rigid standards needed for a conviction in America. It resulted in calls for the repeal of the double-jeopardy clause and has reignited a nation-wide pro-conviction sentiment. But the public’s uninformed passion is just the product of a narrowly focused media in pursuit of new viewers, and any facts that get in their way are collateral damage.

One of their main talking points, the prosecution’s failure to provide cause of death, is one of the biggest farces of them all. As seasoned prosecutors will attest, producing a body isn’t always necessary to obtain a conviction, let alone cause of death.

And that’s the least of concerns with the media’s restless passion for justice. They extract a generalization from a single case and hammer the point home across America. It was as if Paris Hilton’s arrest had proven routine discrimination against blonde billionaire heiresses.

The thesis being propagated is that our system of justice has a weakness for defendants. Yet despite the Florida verdict’s dubiousness, the overwhelming issue in the justice system is very much the reverse of the media’s narrative. The United States is quite inclined to convictions. Such is in fact the result of over 90 percent of criminal cases. Also, we have the most inmates per capita of any nation: five times more than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan.

The news media simply covers an exceptional few cases involving markedly guilty defendants and generates sensation over their acquittals, but perhaps the most offensive part of its barmy narrative is not the raw data that flies in its face, but the well-publicized abuse and corruption that characterizes the unique practice of our system. For one, the playing field is rigged. Prosecutors enjoy special powers unconscionable for a defense team. As agents of the state, they have a wreath of responsibilities that they take advantage of in the courtroom.

Prosecutors have unique leverage through the plea bargain, which they can use to extract a favorable testimony against the defendant in another trial involving a crime in which the two are complicit. A defense lawyer pondering a bribe to a witness would face suspension of his law license, and yet prosecutors routinely offer something of far greater value: freedom.

They also wield power over the evidence lockers. A prisoner in Colorado convicted of rape was exonerated by DNA evidence after 15 years of incarceration. As it turned out, the prosecutor in the case had withheld that very evidence from the trial. Of course one of the best perks of being on the prosecution is full immunity from misconduct.

Another man in Florida was released from prison after 35 years after being vindicated by DNA evidence. The prosecutor in the case had obtained the conviction simply by showing a photograph of the suspect to the victim and asking for an affirmative. It wasn’t difficult to see how flawed a method this was, after all the number one reason of false incarceration for black men is false identification. And that’s at a lineup, making the odds even grimmer when their fates revolve around a simple yes or no answer. Once again, full prosecutorial immunity.

In addition to misconduct, false convictions are frequently doled out on the doing of simple incompetence. An estimated 500 inmates in Texas are said to have been falsely convicted of arson. Forensic science is a fledgling art, and in the weeks leading up to the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas for the murder of his daughters through arson, veteran fire experts came forth with discrepancies in the fire report. They had found the forensics in the case to have been based on outdated science. The execution proceeded despite the dispute, and it is now a hot topic of Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential run.

These incidents are not isolated to the famously “tough on crime” South either. Shortly before the Illinois moratorium on the death penalty, now banned entirely, an estimated two-thirds of death row inmates in the state were said to be innocent. Though Casey Anthony may have joined O.J. Simpson in the exclusive “got away with it” club, these cases are but the rare exceptions to a system overwhelmingly skewed toward convictions. By focusing on these exceptions, the media recklessly drives public debate in favor of aggravating the situation.

Beyond that, the whole fixation on the case itself was hogwash. Impassioned protestors took to the streets outside the courthouse to express their indignation, sharing their opinions with reporters on scene. Yet no such outrage is to be found in any other case of parents murdering their children, a weekly occurrence according to Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera. The whole Casey Anthony commotion was a media manufactured circus undeserving of any particular attention. Indeed Casey Anthony’s greatest offense was the slaying of a photogenic white girl.

The most drastic and dangerous result of this sensation is the very real effect it has taken on state legislatures nationwide. Campaigns are going strong for “Caylee’s Law”, named after the titular tot, which would make it a felony not to report the death of a child within an hour. This one requires some sitting down … Apparently it has never occurred to these lawmakers that pinpointing the exact hour of a child’s disappearance, let alone death, is a task beyond impossible. Unless Hogwarts starts teaching forensics, the whole statute would be an unworkable product of short term post-sensation frenzy.  Even if it were feasible, the notion itself that a parent would be able to report the disappearance or death of their children within the hour is an absurdity in itself.

Children, even babies, are not within view of their parents at every instant in the day. The complications of nighttime deaths, especially common for children, would be the law’s biggest blind spot. Parents would awake to find their deceased children in bed, panicking over how much time had likely passed since the time of death, wondering what to tell the authorities. Their only option would be to lie, offsetting the entire investigation. This would be even more problematic in cases of a disappearance, as parents would be forced to choose between giving false information that would harm their chances of recovering their child, or facing charges under Caylee’s Law for failing to notice within the one-hour timeframe.

The news media is a commercial system and the Casey Anthony case has given fuel to their clamor for sensation, though their criticism ran counter to the big picture. The United States faces a crisis in justice: a crisis of mass convictions based largely on the public’s waning tempers. If the networks were truly balanced they would produce an equal level of moral outrage for each case of justice gone wrong; an impossibly time-consuming task. News channels therefore hype, mislead and sensationalize select stories as need be; the consequence of our free market system where viewers use remotes to elect their networks of choice. This mania machine alone is not to be entrusted with the power to inform one’s worldview. News comes from many sources in this age of light-speed information, and cable television viewers should be aware of their alternatives to one sided hot air.

Tom Baudin is a fourth-year political science major. He can be reached at tbaudin@uci.edu.