The Rhetorical Placing of the Casey Anthony Trial

Casey Anthony has been booked into the Orange ...Image via Wikipedia
Here at my mother's house the conversation centers around the Casey Anthony trial.  She was interested in it to see if Anthony would be found guilty of killing her daughter. I was interested in it to see how people talk about whether she would be found guilty of killing her daughter. Through the little attention I've paid to the trial (reading news reports here and there, watching a news clip rather spontaneously, thinking she looks like she belongs in Middle Earth) and the microscopic attention my mother paid to it (Court TV all day, CNN updates, website visits) we've had some good conversations about it. These national cases are always a good thermometer of the national attitude toward our legal system and additionally, a measure of our legal literacy in the U.S.

Here are a few premature conclusions from all of this:

1) It's good to broadcast these trials. Standing near the ticket counter in the Atlanta International airport on July 5th, I was able to watch the slow wave of attention build toward the TV in the waiting area as the jury returned the not-guilty verdict. People became very still and very quiet and listened. After the verdict was announced, people began to talk to one another. 

"That's awful!" 
"I wonder about that alternate juror, they said he was frowning a lot." 
"You see, you see, she was tried by a jury of her peers. And that's Justice."
A man in a plaid shirt and jeans turns to me and looks me in the eye, "Ain't no crime to be a bad mother. And that's all she turned out to be."

I wonder what else could get a bunch of strangers, stuck together via travel, to start talking about the law and the court in such a manner? Sure, these statements are rather base. But if I had the inclination and time, all of them are the root of some good, thoughtful questions. And not one of these people would have refused to engage me. There seemed to be a need, a very stark need there, to talk about it. People had to vocalize their thoughts. They found one another. Some were talking about lawyers, law, and courts and what was wrong with them. Some were talking about the disjoint between the law and the truth/reality/morality of the modern era.  Some shifted to talking about their own children and grandchildren.

2) I'm thankful it's hard to prove things. As much as you might think I'm an unapologetic critic of rationality and reason as systems, moments like this make me very, very happy that the burden of proof in the legal system is really hard to meet. My facebook feed, as well as daily conversations here in Texas, have reminded me that mob mentality and the tyranny of the majority (who believes they "know") are incredibly frightening and unstoppable. The only intervention I've tried is, "Well, if you were on trial for your life, would you want it to be less careful than those instructions Judge Perry read to the jury?"  Most avoid the question by begging it - "I wouldn't have killed my daughter, so I wouldn't be up there!" It's a real problem that in this country we assume police detain only guilty people. How do we reverse that?

It seems on the surface that people are merely enraged (and it's justified) at the horrific treatment of a defenseless child. The State certainly should come in and seek justice for her. But at what cost? This rage people express at the "unjust" verdict easily transforms into vitriol against lawyers (and the profession of law), the courts, the court system, and the Constitution. I'm very thankful for the complex and complicated court system that insists on a tight resonance between evidence and guilt. These people cannot imagine being on trial accidentally, or because events add up in a circumstantial way to make you look bad. How do we spark the imagination in this direction to encourage celebration of this verdict? The jurors were very careful and cautious with the evidence and the arguments. Why are they being called idiots? We should remind each other that it could easily be us up there one day. And with the death penalty a viable part of U.S. law, why wouldn't you want every protection going to the defendant? 

3) Implications for the Abortion Discussion. I plan to use this in my class this fall to float the following argument: The Anthony family was staunchly against abortion, so Casey didn't have one. She didn't want this child. She created a life of suffering and pain for this child that was atrocious. She took care of it unintentionally via neglect and perhaps other horrors we'll never know about.

Isn't this what the world will have more of if we functionally or legally restrict access to abortion? In the Anthony family, there was functional restriction. In the Southern U.S., there's a lot of cultural and functional restriction that is bleeding into the law. Can this case and the indignation is has provoked in people across the country be a good topoi for the legal and functional access arm of the abortion discussion?

I wonder what my students will think. It's difficult to get most people out of the moral/rights debate arena on abortion and into the suffering aspect of it. I find it to be good ground, primarily because I believe that the State should be working to alleviate harm and suffering for people. Sure, abortion is a harm, but would we be doing better at that goal without it? 

Might be an interesting class. I'll let you know.

4) Legal Illiteracy is Dire. "Don't worry," someone told me, "The police will keep looking forever. And one day they will find new evidence and then they will be able to convict her." It took me about 45 minutes to explain, not to her great satisfaction, what double jeopardy is and why it is important.  I thought High School civics courses were bad, but I didn't realize that most people weighing in on this case, lack the basic understanding of criminal law needed to engage in meaningful conversation about it.

A basic understanding of how the law works and why the rules are there are essential to preserving the hard-to-convict justice system that protects us all. How can we teach this to everyone? Right now, the ins and outs of the legal system are in the hands of the journalists on cable news networks. With backgrounds in law, and law degrees of varying quality, they run an information monopoly on these trials. 

The problem with the law degree journalist is that they work for a corporation that hires them to generate more viewers. Keeping viewers attentive requires a lot of rhetorical work that, on its own, would be inert - simplification, reduction, repetition, and (oh noes!) flamboyant language. This is permitted in court, to an extent, but it's tempered by the rules, the system, and the signifiers of the court language - the case law. On the other side of the TV though, those elements are not present.

 People need balance. How best to give it to them? How best to instill the principles of a functioning justice system into the minds of most people? Apparently even a college education isn't enough these days. What would be a good method to ensure that someone is tempering the flow of the journalist/lawyers?


I'm sure these thoughts will develop a bit more. It's important to attend to why this particular case became so important - and how we can use it to craft more rhetorical savvy in the general public. I think such a large-scale program will have the effect of generating a bit more compassion for one another, if we realize that the court's "failure" is due to the humble admission by the most powerful among us that everyone is merely human, and we can't know everything.  We lack, whether we try to do good or not.
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