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Thursday, July 7th, 2011

Baton Rouge, Louisiana


The press told us that both high profile cases were slam dunks for the prosecutors.   In the Casey Anthony case, a dysfunctional young mother parties for a month while her young daughter is missing.  In the Strauss-Kahn criminal investigation, a high rolling, womanizing French financier took advantage of an immigrant maid from Africa in the New York hotel room where he was staying, then immediately tried to flee the country.  There was no doubt in the press and by the prosecutors.  Both were guilty.  Or so we were told.

From the beginning, both cases were played out in a soap opera bubble that was surrounded in a circus like atmosphere.  Cable TV and talk radio served up a daily dose of inflamed rhetoric that convicted both of the accused in the media from day one. Prosecutors quickly moved in for the apparent kill, opposing bond and seeing to it that both Anthony and Strauss-Kahn were jailed from day one.  Anthony sat in jail for the past three years.  Strauss-Kahn was arrested and whisked off to Riker’s Island where he was jailed until the prosecutor’s case began falling apart.

Rarely do criminal cases in the U.S., even on a local level, command much attention.  The justice system in our country stays “off our radar,” and runs largely in the background of the country’s conscience.  The public pays the system little attention as long as it does not come off its wheels.  A fellow attorney, Erick Erickson, put it this way:  “But then something like these cases happen, it is a good reminder that neither judges nor juries nor government prosecutors are perfect and flawless.  We live in a world were when the court says something is blue, we are expected to bow to the judge and proclaim the something blue.  But judges and people make mistakes.”

In the Anthony case, the court of public opinion and the cable talking heads rendered their opinion way before the trial. Casey was guilty of murdering her child.  And there was good reason for many to hold this opinion.  How could a mother wait for months before reporting her child missing?  Her lifestyle raised suspicions.  She was portrayed, with good reason, as both a liar and a bad mother. But did that make her a murderer?

Popular opinion said, “yes.” But the case was decided by jurors who must adhere to a higher standard than the average citizen.  That higher standard is finding the accused “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”Â  Of course jurors, just like the rest of us, had to have held deeply troubling concerns.  But it’s the responsibility of jurors to listen to the evidence and not listen to the media.  It’s the duty of the jury to draw conclusions based only on what is presented at a trial. The press and the public held only presuppositions.  The jury can only work with the facts presented in court.

It has become more difficult for a prosecutor to win his case with only circumstantial evidence. After a steady diet of television shows like “Law and Order,” or “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” the public expects the same clear-cut forensic evidence seen on fictional TV shows.  But Forensic evidence was particularly in short supply in the Anthony case.  When was she killed, how was she killed, where was she killed?  The public is looking for, and expecting, a forensic “smoking gun,” and none was produced.  So no hard proof, no smoking gun, no direct testimony, no convincing motive — only circumstantial evidence. There was just not enough for an informed jury to overcome “reasonable doubt.”

One thing both sides can agree on was that all parties to the trial were guilty of hogging up endless hours of cable TV news coverage.  As the Anthony verdict came in, CNN’s Nancy Grace shouted, “The Devil is dancing.”Â  I thought Grace was going to explode right in front of us.  A case could be made that Grace, despite her nightly tirades against the “Tot Mom,” played a significant role in how Anthony was found not guilty.  Before Grace spent years campaigning relentlessly for Tot Mom’s conviction on her nightly cable show, Anthony was only able to afford the legal representation that the state of Florida would give her.

Brian Dickerson, who writes for the Detroit free Press summed up the alternatives well:  “You do not escape a legal abyss as deep as the one Casey Anthony had dug for herself without skilled legal representation, and in the United States such representation is available to only two kinds of criminal defendants “” those who can afford to hire the full-time services of a good lawyer themselves, and those whose cases are so celebrated that good lawyers are willing to work on them for little or no fee, in the confidence that their labors will ultimately be compensated in some other way.”Â  So thanks to the notoriety created by Nancy Grace, Casey was able to attract a top flight legal team all gratis.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn is the villain we all love to hate.  A wealthy, womanizing, French politician who was (and still may be) the socialist candidate for French Prime Minister.  Many of us still eat only “freedom fries,” and you know how those French guys are when it comes to women.  The poor African maid was quite believable, and Strauss-Kahn had to be pulled off an Air France plane to keep him from fleeing. He was cuffed in front of the TV cameras and immediately sent to jail. No bail, no chance to explain his side of the story. It was the Queen in Alice in Wonderland all over again saying:  “Sentence first verdict afterwords.”

Then the accuser’s story began unraveling.  The maid had cleaned several more rooms before reporting the alleged rape. She lied about an earlier gang rape, about having a child, falsified child support claims, and told her boyfriend in her native tongue that there was big money to be made from Strauss-Kahn.  His “fleeing” from the hotel was followed by a quiet lunch with his daughter, and then a long scheduled flight back to his home in France.  Some way to flee.

Neither one of these two accused should be placed on a victimized pedestal.  Both of them are pretty sleazy characters.  However, a cornerstone of American justice is the presumption of innocence until proven guilty in a court of law.  But we all know that’s often not the case.  Many potential jurors will tell you that “most of the accused are guilty, or why else would the police arrest them?”

But even the sleazy have basic constitutional rights.  The arrest is assumed to be based on “probable cause,” and a conviction is supposed to be based on “beyond a reasonable doubt.”Â  A conviction should not be based on media frenzy or allegations that do not hold up under scrutiny. That’s the way the system is presumed to work.  Sometimes, justice does not prevail.  But that’s the system, and that’s all we’ve got.


“In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls.” Lenny Bruce

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the South.  You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at www.jimbrownla.com.  You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownla.com.

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