Casey Anthony and the CSI effect

There are reasons the jury may have been biased to acquit. There are bigger reasons that the public was biased to convict.

NATCHITOCHES, La., July 7, 2011 — Many people were stunned by the verdict in the Casey Anthony murder case. Even Anthony and her lawyers were astonished; they’d apparently hoped for a hung jury.

Did the jury get it wrong?

Perhaps not. The court of public opinion isn’t a court of law. The standard of proof is higher in a court of law. It’s one thing to know that she did it, another thing entirely to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

Many people who watched the trial along with the jury didn’t think the doubt was reasonable. Assuming that we heard and saw everything the jury heard and saw, why was the jury less convinced than we were?

Image: Defense attorney Cheney Mason expressing his opinion of public sentiment following the Casey Anthony murder trial (Associated Press)

Image: Defense attorney Cheney Mason expressing his opinion of public sentiment following the Casey Anthony murder trial (Associated Press)

The obvious reason is that being a juror entails more responsibility than being an observer. In the comfort of your living room, you can shout “guilty” in the knowledge that no one will die, hence you can be wrong without consequences. It’s easy to make coaching decisions, investment decisions, and form opinions of guilt and innocence when nothing is at stake.

The evidence is that jurors generally do take the job seriously, and the weight of responsibility focuses their minds more tightly on the task of weighing the evidence.

A second possibility is the so-called “CSI effect.” There’s been chatter for years about the possible impact that TV shows like CSI and its spin-offs have had on jurors. On CSI, there’s always DNA. Investigators go over every clue with exquisite care, pulling finger prints off blades of grass and finding the crucial fiber hanging from the victim’s cuff.

Viewers of CSI-type shows are believed to have higher, unrealistic standards and unrealistic expectations about the capabilities of forensic science. When real investigators and crime labs don’t deliver the goods at the TV level, jurors may believe that their work is shoddy or unreliable. They might be less willing to convict without conclusive laboratory evidence.

Research on the CSI effect has been inconclusive. No CSI effect has been directly observed, but the notion is consistent with other findings in clinical psychology. More importantly, while a specific CSI effect has not been measured within the limits of statistical certainty, there is evidence of a more general “tech effect.”

While viewers of CSI aren’t statistically more likely to acquit than non-CSI viewers,  there does seem to be an impact on jury decisions due to the rapid pace of scientific discovery. People in general have higher expectations of and confidence in technology to provide definitive answers, and when it doesn’t, it affects jurors’ perceptions of the strength of the prosecution’s case.

Another effect comes into play here. When we’re more concerned about justice for the victim than justice for the accused, we tend to bias our interpretation of the evidence. Our desire to punish the criminal can completely dominate our search for the truth. The psychological literature indicates that this is precisely the case.

Two-year-old Caylee was an incredibly appealing and sympathetic victim. Her mother, who partied during Caylee’s disappearance, was anything but sympathetic. It would be natural for most people to bias their view of the evidence against Casey Anthony.

And so the court of public opinion has condemned Casey Anthony.

The public wants justice, and it perceives justice to have been delivered when someone has been convicted of a crime. An acquittal isn’t a resolution at all. Either the guilty party was acquitted, or there’s still a guilty person out there somewhere. Neither outcome is satisfactory.

Given a choice of trusting the public jury or the actual trial jury, my vote is with the trial jury. The furious certainty of people like Nancy Grace can be persuasive, but she was wrong about the Duke lacrosse players, and she could easily be wrong here. A month ago it might have been difficult to find ten people in a hundred who thought Dominique Strauss-Kahn was innocent of rape. Now the New York DA’s office would like that case to go away.

Former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, after his arrest on rape charges.

Former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, after his arrest on rape charges.

In their anger over the verdict, a number of letter writers have suggested doing away with the Fifth Amendment. Anger over high profile cases has given us increasingly harsh laws dealing with sex offenders, and anger over crime in general has led to the abomination of three-strike rules and a country obsessed with locking away ever larger chunks of the population.

Anger makes for bad law. Passion is the driving force for mobs, not justice. It’s right to feel anger for the death of Caylee Anthony, and it’s right to want justice for her. It’s wrong to want that anger to guide the law. Casey Anthony might be guilty, but it’s entirely appropriate that the jury, to their dismay, didn’t find her so.

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the French professor, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade and chili-chocolate cupcakes. He thinks Casey Anthony is guilty. He tweets and has a badly neglected blog at pichtblog.blogspot.com.


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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