Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Media as the 13th Juror: What the Casey Anthony Not Guilty Verdict Says about the Press and Those Who Work with It

As first reported in CommPro.Biz

The not guilty verdict in the Casey Anthony murder trial is shocking to some, because prior to the trial it seemed there was a great probability that the woman would be held responsible for her daughter’s death. Is the media guilty of jumping to conclusions and racing to its own verdict before the evidence was presented?

Yes, it certainly is. But who’s really responsible – the news organizations, the public relations teams for the prosecution and defense, or the general public for accepting what was generally reported by the media?

Anyone who watched the trial knows that the evidence presented did not point to guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In the end, the prosecution did not have solid evidence to connect Casey to two-year-old Caylee’s death, even though there was substantial circumstantial evidence.

There simply was no smoking gun.

Defense Attorney Jose Baez said Tuesday that he had mixed emotions about the case and that he had to work hard against media bias that existed during the search for Caylee and the case against Casey Anthony.

“You cannot convict someone until they have their day in court,” he said.

He’s right and the media, dating back to the O.J. Simpson trial, has not learned its lesson. In this case, there is enough culpability for all parties to have their share, starting with the Orange County (FL) District Attorney’s Office and the office of the Orange County Sheriff.

The prosecution put out all kinds of tidbits about the timeline. Surely, a mother would be found guilty if she didn’t report the fact that her child was missing right away. Traces of chloroform inside the trunk of Casey’s car and the presumed odor of human decomposition therein were considered damning. Likewise regarding the indication of duct tape at the crime scene and in the Anthony home and the Google searches found on the Anthony computer for the following terms: “neck-breaking,” “how to make chloroform” and “death.”

From a public relations standpoint, the prosecution did its job while the defense did not, reportedly because if its lack of budget and the fact that a public relations firm resigned after representing the Anthony family for a time. The defense was not able to match the district attorney’s office point for point and could not adequately promulgate a message of innocence based on its court presentation.

And the media. It did not do well in reporting both sides of the story. Reporters heard more from the prosecution than the defense and ran with what they had.

Where was the real evidence? The prosecution had not gone beyond the circumstantial. There was no murder weapon. There were no witnesses. No DNA that could link the accused to the victim that could prove anything beyond a mother who was in contact with her daughter. There were no telephone calls or tapes during which the mother or any family member could be heard admitting guilt.

And there was a lack of real investigative reporting. Media outlets, for the most part, did not question the lack of real support for any of the allegations and leaned heavily on the emotional side. Here was a mother who was accused of having a sordid past who was possibly the victim of sexual abuse, both of which could have unleashed demons leading to filicide. Casey Anthony seemed like she could be guilty.

Furthermore, when criminal cases are the constant subject of programs like Greta Van Susteren’s “On the Record,” Nancy Grace and Geraldo Rivera’s “Geraldo at Large,” there is a heavy assumption of guilt on the part of the accused.

Last night, Nancy Grace was still at it. She said she was more stunned by the outcome of this case than when O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of murdering Nicole Simpson in 1995. She went on to say that Anthony stood to profit from her case with a “big fat book deal” or a “made for TV movie” and even went so far as to add that she would “run right through” any income.

Finally, the public has to shoulder some of the blame. If there weren’t so many viewers for the talk shows named here and if there weren’t large, unquestioning audiences for most news and talk programs, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. The American public does need to question more and assume less.

It is easy to hate a mother who is accused of doing such harm to her child, but guilty verdicts, thankfully, are not predicated on feelings and probabilities. The system works because evidence is necessary and no such evidence proving guilt was presented in the Casey Anthony trial.

This happened back in 1995 and more than 15 years later it was happened again. Many were certain O.J. Simpson would be found guilty in his criminal trial, but he was not. We should not be so surprised that history has, to an extent, repeated itself.

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