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Evidence and Casey Anthony

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Of course we know that many are outraged at the Casey Anthony verdict.  However, I’ve seen some tempered and reasoned responses as well, of the form: ‘Yes, she probably did it, but the evidence just wasn’t there, so they had to acquit her.’  I agree that there was not sufficient evidence to support a conviction, and I was pleased with the jury’s respect for the evidence.  Like some others, I think this case is a shining example of the system working as it is supposed to.  However, I want to draw the reasonable people’s attention to a potential source of inconsistency when evaluating the case.   If one agrees that the evidence is not sufficient for a conviction, on what grounds does one think that she probably did it?

I want to challenge this sort of response, even though I think it is the more reasonable response of the two.  It is good that one can acknowledge that the evidence was not sufficient to overcome reasonable doubt.  It is bad to then assert that she probably did it.  The evidence is the same for all of us, and as many of the reasonable responders have pointed out, the jury is in the best position to judge the evidence, having dedicated as much time as they have to thinking about it.  How can one acknowledge the primary importance of evidence, and the fact that the evidence does not sufficiently support the conclusion that she did it, and still positively believe that she did it?  I think this is an inconsistent set of beliefs.  I think that one should proportion one’s own beliefs to the evidence to the same degree expected of a jury.  Ask yourself, why do you think she did it?  Now, in the same mindset with which you evaluated the jury’s verdict, evaluate your own reason for believing that she did it.  I think that most will realize that they do not really have a good reason for thinking that Casey Anthony murdered her child.  As badly as we want to know what happened, and as easy as it is to jump to a conclusion based on some sort of common sense response to some strangeness of her behavior or the case, I think the rational response, consistent with the evidence, is to embrace one’s ignorance.  I am pleased with the jury’s verdict because the evidence just wasn’t there, and because the evidence wasn’t there, I am uncertain about her guilt, and because I am uncertain about her guilt, I continue to presume that she’s innocent.

It is not enough to applaud public displays of reason.  One must practice good reasoning on a daily basis, with every personal belief.  If you agree that the evidence does not support a belief, then doubt is the appropriate cognitive state, whether you are on a jury or your couch.


About Seth Kurtenbach

Philosophy grad student who wandered into a computer science PhD program with a backpack full of modal logic and decision theory.

8 comments on “Evidence and Casey Anthony

  1. Joseph Folkemer
    July 6, 2011

    I don’t have an opinion about her innocence either way, or as we all know, I probably do, but am refusing to say it for fear of opening the box of ambiguity I’m trying to contain it in.

    But let’s presume I’m on the side you are debating against right now; that I think she probably is guilty but the system did it’s job. I’ll go a step further now and say I know, in my heart of hearts, or I have secret info, whatever, that she was guilty. Justice is not a value I hold above freedom and fairness. I’m not afraid that her lack of conviction is going to leave her free to kill more children. I don’t think she necessarily would benefit from ‘rehabilitation’ related to [this] crime. I don’t feel that I or my children need protection from her. What is left is the comfort that if I am accused of a crime, despite being demonized and only being able to afford mediocre representation, I am not doomed to death by the court of public opinion.

    I don’t think society needs the courts to murder, incarcerate or otherwise rid ourselves of people that we presume detrimental to our well being. Humans have been doing that for millions of years. Hell, chimps are capable of it. I see the legal system as a way to protect the accused from society: We see people who are convicted every day, and we usually have no way of actually knowing whether justice is being served. Even if she was guilty of those crimes, I’m glad to have my faith in the system, to give protection to the accused, validated for once. The burden of proof is on the accusers, as it should be as they made the positive claim, and prosecutors need to be held to high standards. Sometimes, unfortunately, justice must be sacrificed in order to uphold the integrity of the system itself. If we go easy on the prosecution in ‘special cases,’ well then our legal system has no integrity at all! Whether she is innocent or not is irrelevant to me now; I can definitively say she got the protection we are all promised.

  2. delahar
    July 7, 2011

    I just was reminded of this case when a co-worker told me the verdict. She seemed well-versed in a number of points on the case. While we cannot reach guilt with any mathematical certainty, she described (what was termed in the movie “Minority Report”) an “orgy of evidence”. Granted the evidence was largely circumstantial. I don’t know if such is sufficient to result in a guilty verdict. It seems others have been found guilty for less (e.g. mistaken in a police lineup.) Further, she has a 5th amendment right which protects her from self-incrimination. Though, like circumstantial evidence, not definitive, I wonder what fraction of defense attorneys certain of their clients’ innocence elect to invoke the 5th.

    My point is that juries should be (if they aren’t already) allowed to consider the entire picture. The portrait of circumstantial evidence is overwhelmingly damning. If this person was of working age and did not show up to work for days, presumably action would have been initiated earlier. But this was a child. She was murdered. And as much as I think protecting the integrity of the system is important, I think that can be done while considering the wider picture painted by the evidence, even circumstantial evidence.

    Some might consider a failure to convict without mathematical proof of guilt a victory for American justice. I disagree. I think this is embarrassment of our system. And one of tremendous legal costs. The only winners here are Ms. Anthony and tabloid media. Everyone else loses.

    • Seth Kurtenbach
      July 7, 2011

      Hi Delahar – I don’t think any of the evidence was strong enough to convict her of first degree murder. Could you name the pieces of evidence that you think show beyond a reasonable doubt that she murdered her child?

      Note that ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ is not the same as mathematical certainty. No amount of empirical evidence could prove anyone’s guilt to a mathematical certainty. Reasonable doubt means that there is at least one reasonable interpretation of the evidence in which the defendant is not guilty. If upon sober consideration of the evidence, there is some real doubt based on a reason, then the evidence is insufficient.

      There are good reasons why one cannot infer guilt from someone’s invoking the fifth amendment. Someone may have committed other crimes that would have come out during cross examination, and yet the person may be innocent of the alleged crime. We can say with some high confidence that Casey Anthony has an ignoble character, and I’m sure the prosecutor would have exploited that during cross examination. It was wise to keep her off the stand. None of this allows us to infer that she murdered her child.

  3. jlayk
    July 7, 2011

    I agree. The evidence was not there, there is no reason to believe that she did it. I’ve been annoyed by people who insist it was an example of the “failures of our system.” No, it was a good example of how our system *works*.

  4. delahar
    July 8, 2011

    I respectfully disagree with you, Seth. Liberal as I am in my views, the notion of the most serious type of crime going unpunished is hard to bear. My reaction, as father of two, is certainly biased.

    But, I submit to those of you who followed the case and know the evidence better. All of my exposure to the trial has been through hearsay of others. And having someone tried in the press is not better an expression of justice than a lynch mob.

    • Tony Lakey
      July 9, 2011

      And what exactly does this punishment supposed to accomplish other than vengeance? How would putting someone to death for killing their child be beneficial. Assuming the murdering wasn’t simply someone that enjoyed killing children because they thought it was fun, no other children would be harmed by this person. Even putting them in prison wouldn’t help to protect anyone. Their crime has already been committed, and there is no reason to think that they are going to commit a similar crime again. And if deterrence is what you are going to argue for perhaps you should reconsider. Even if places with a death penalty, crimes that have such a punishment are still committed. What could possibly be more a deterrent than death? Yet it doesn’t seem to stop people. Perhaps instead of focusing on punishing people for their crime, which seem like revenge, we should try to find a way to re-socialize them into becoming productive and behaving in a socially acceptable way. To me that seems to be, at the very least, to be more pragmatic.

  5. Maggiesaurus May
    July 9, 2011

    It’s almost inconceivable that 1st degree murder was pursued in a case in which the prosecution had no idea when the murder took place, where the murder took place and how the murder took place. There is no murder scene in which to place Ms. Anthony, no weapon to put in her hands.
    Delahar, I completely agree that circumstantial evidence can be enough to get a conviction. However, in addition to a complete lack of physical evidence, the circumstantial evidence was also very weak. The very best they had (in my opinion) was that the duct tape found on Kaley was the same brand as that used by the Anthony family, and a cadaver dog alerted to Casey’s car. Neither of these pieces of evidence warrants a guilty verdict.
    Furthermore Delahar, I can assure you that lawyers very rarely recommend a client to take the stand. I know that sometimes clients will want to take the stand and explain their side of the story and their lawyers will still not want to put them on. The reason has nothing to do with guilt or innocence. As Seth said, by putting a client on the stand, his/her history gets opened up. Prior bad acts can get introduced that wouldn’t otherwise be. Some clients just don’t appear to be sympathetic. Some clients have a bad memory which can cause them to impeach themselves. Some clients get easily flustered by cross examination. A client’s exercising their 5th amendment right has nothing to do with guilt or innocence and a jury is forbidden in considering it.

  6. Jerry Winn
    July 12, 2011

    I think the heart of the matter is that many people feel that the standard for reasonable doubt in the legal system is stricter (and specifically, TOO strict) than their own standards for reasonable doubt.

    i.e., Most people might argue that there’s a 70% chance she did it, and therefor it is correct to say that she PROBABLY did it. However, they could also easily agree that a 30% chance that she is innocent allows for too much reasonable doubt to convict her. In this way, people easily become torn between their beliefs that a person is probably guilty, and that it is better to err on the side of not punishing someone innocent.

    Probably most of the people who weren’t on the jury and express the sentiments you described understand this in some intuitive way, but may not relate to the predicament of the jurors who were likely in the same position.

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This entry was posted on July 6, 2011 by in Author: Seth Kurtenbach, In The News and tagged , , , .
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