Casey Anthony’s acquittal of the killing of her precious child, Caylee, has shocked the nation. Many who watched the trial on TV – and who were not constrained from taking into account inadmissible evidence, the punditry of various talking heads, or the overwhelming public sentiment against Ms. Anthony – have been critical of the jury’s verdict. Among those most vehement in their condemnation of the jury are TV notables Bill O’Reilly and Nancy Grace. Their indignation is shared by those who feel the verdict represented a gross miscarriage of justice.
Cases like this call the value of trial by jury into question for some. But critics should take some important points into consideration: In American jurisprudence, an accused wrongdoer is presumed innocent. The burden is on the prosecution to prove guilt beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt. The jury is not permitted to consider evidence that doesn’t reach a certain threshold of reliability and they aren’t permitted to take into account matters outside the evidence.
They aren’t entitled to discuss the case among themselves, or even form an opinion about the case, until all the evidence is in. They can’t discuss the case with anyone other than their fellow jurors, and if any reasonable doubt exists about the crime(s) charged, they cannot convict. It is not enough for the jury to “know” that the accused is guilty as charged. The charges must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Most freedom loving people agree that these are important safeguards which must be met before one accused of a crime can be deprived of their life or liberty.
Trial by jury is not a recent phenomenon. It dates back over a thousand years, and its use has been documented in a variety of civilizations. The right to trial by jury has been particularly prominent in the American system of law and justice.
When the Founders enumerated their grievances in the Declaration of Independence, King George’s denial to the colonists of the right to trial by jury was in the forefront of their complaints. George Mason famously refused to sign the Constitution unless the right to trial by jury was made explicit. Thomas Jefferson made clear the value he placed on juries when he said, “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man by which a government can be held to the principles of its Constitution.” Its importance is highlighted by the fact that the right to trial by jury is expressly referenced in not one, but three of the amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights.
As Americans, we tend to take the right to trial by jury for granted; but it should not difficult to imagine the horror of living in a society in which the State possesses absolute power. Millions of people around the world live in societies that don’t allow for trial by jury. When they are accused of wrongdoing, they aren’t afforded an opportunity to defend themselves. No jury of their peers decides their guilt or innocence. Their lives and freedom are subject to the whims of those who hold power. Their tribunals – if they exist at all – are mere kangaroo courts which serve only as an eye wash. “Verdict first, trial later” is their modus operandi. Even here in America there was a time when perverted justice prevailed, when the word of a single white man could spell death for a politically and legally powerless African American.
This is why the right to trial by jury is essential.
Our Founding Fathers recognized that the collective judgment of ordinary people, while not perfect, is the most reliable, most just method of resolving conflicts in America’s courtrooms. Does the jury system and its protections mean that sometimes the guilty will go free? The answer is yes. Alan Dershowitz addressed this in a recent article discussing the Casey Anthony verdict:
“For thousands of years, Western society has insisted that it is better for 10 guilty defendants to go free than for one innocent defendant to be wrongly convicted. This daunting standard finds its roots in the biblical story of Abraham’s argument with God about the sinners of Sodom. Abraham admonishes God for planning to sweep away the innocent along with the guilty and asks Him whether it would be right to condemn the sinners of Sodom if there were 10 or more righteous people among them. God agrees and reassures Abraham that he would spare the city if there were 10 righteous. From this compelling account, the legal standard has emerged.”
A justice system that allows for the possibility of the guilty going free is undoubtedly unpalatable for those who wish to see Caylee Anthony’s death avenged, but it is a standard that recognizes and upholds the notion that life and liberty should not be deprived without due process of law. It’s not a perfect system, but none better has yet been devised by man.