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Reflection, Not Rhetoric: Jury opinion vs. public opinion

Why do we think we know better than a jury?

As my Facebook and Twitter feeds blow up with people’s reactions about Casey Anthony’s “not guilty” murder and manslaughter verdicts, I think it’s important to remind people of one thing: Casey Anthony’s guilt or innocence isn’t a matter of public opinion.

Things trending on Twitter have included “#caseyanthonyverdict,” and “#notguilty,” which are themselves not a problem.  However, when “Johnny [sic] Cochran” and “OJs” trend as people compare the two trials, there is definitely a problem.

Most of what I’ve seen from Twitter and Facebook have been people talking about how Casey Anthony “got away,” how she needs to watch her back, or how this is “OJs case all over again.” I’ve read that Casey Anthony “is this generation’s O.J.” “Now we white folks have our version of the OJ Travesty,” reads a tweet.

I get that people are mad.  People have watched a lot of media coverage that called Casey Anthony a liar–and she was declared guilty for lying, remember — and it doesn’t help that Nancy Grace has managed to shape the media discourse in such a strong way that she influenced public opinion itself.

All day, Google Trends showed that “hot searches” included not only “Casey Anthony” but “Nancy Grace” and “Headline News,” demonstrating the power that Grace has had in media coverage of the case.

For all of our anger, though, I think we need to remember that we’re not the jury.  Other than the people involved in the case, the jury is the only group of people that have been presented with relevant evidence.  The opinions of the jurors are the only ones that matter in determining guilt, since they’re the ones who, in a formal and rigorous system, were given the evidence and arguments from both sides and then given the instructions necessary to make a decision.

Why do we think we know better than a jury?

I got called to jury duty for the first (and only) time last year, and I while I knew about hung juries, it struck me for the first time how incredibly careful the system is. Not only are people considered innocent until proven guilty, it’s up to the prosecution to prove guilt.  If we need enough to get over any “reasonable doubt,” we need to be pretty certain that someone’s guilty. If one person–a single person!–believes that there’s even a possibility that the someone’s innocent, then there’s a hung jury!

So today’s verdict doesn’t mean that Casey Anthony is innocent. It doesn’t even mean that the jurors believe Casey Anthony is innocent. What it does mean, however, is that every single juror believed that there’s at least a reasonable doubt that she’s guilty. Every. Single. Juror.

Maybe the entire jury believes she’s innocent. Maybe they all believe she’s guilty. Doesn’t matter. Each and every juror considered the evidence and then decided that it would be irresponsible of them to declare her guilty.

Doesn’t matter. We still think she’s guilty.

We did the same thing with O.J. Simpson, or with Michael Jackson. “He’s guilty,” people cried, “I know he’s guilty!”  When the verdicts came back, the howls of anger were loud and the criticism quick. Obviously, it’s not this one instance. People are always going to have opinions, and that’s perfectly acceptable. What’s not acceptable is people deciding that they know better than a jury, people making grand statements about the justice system because they believe they have the answers. We need to draw a line.

Part of the problem is the blurred line between editorials and objective reporting–Nancy Grace doesn’t pretend to be objective and unbiased, but viewers can use her association to CNN to turn her show into a credible source of objective journalism in their eyes. It’s not Nancy Grace’s fault that people listen to her, it’s our fault for not trying to be more rational, more open-minded.

I’m not trying to mourn the death of journalism, I’m not crying about the commercialization of media, the rise of tabloid journalism, none of that. Supply and demand keeps me from that. Instead, I blame the consumers who demand Nancy Grace as their only source of news. People can watch all the Nancy Grace they want, but they need to understand what they are — and are not — watching. When Nancy Grace tries to convince you of Casey Anthony’s guilty, that’s fine. But understand what you’re watching.

Today, a jury returned a “not guilty” verdict on several counts. No matter what we personally believed up until this moment, we need to give the jury and the justice system the respect they deserve. The system was carefully designed, constantly being adjusted and most of the time people recognize its validity. Just because we’re uncomfortable with a decision doesn’t mean we should throw what we know out the window. Do you believe Casey Anthony is guilty? Doesn’t matter. Who are we?

If you want the justice system to be more vengeful, more emotional, or more subjective, fine. But that’s not the United States system. I, for one, believe in the way the American justice system is designed to work. The jury may not know best, but I think we should realize that it knows better than we do when it comes to the evidence and arguments of the trial. Let’s cool the rhetoric and give the jury the respect it deserves.

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