Thursday, July 7, 2011

History Shows No Surprise in Anthony Acquittal

The Casey Anthony case, the latest trial of the century, ended this week with a not-guilty verdict.  That has led to a flurry of explanations of “what went wrong.”

Actually, nothing did: the jury simply didn’t find her guilty.  Her peers heard all the evidence and concluded that the State had not proven that the defendant had committed murdered her daughter Caylee.  The jury said Casey lied to police about her daughter, but that did not prove that she killed Caylee.

CNN then launched a poll asking readers if they were surprised by the results.  At last count, more than 70 percent said they were.

That isn’t surprising. 

Too many people simply do not know history.  If they did, they would have been shocked if Casey had been found guilty.  In high profile murder cases, defendants almost invariably walk.

Go back to 1893 in possibly the most notorious trial in the 19th century.  Elizabeth Borden was accused of killing her mother and father with an axe, leading to a still-repeated rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother 40 whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her mother 41.

Still, she was found innocent.  A recent study of the case found that Elizabeth could not have been guilty.  Instead, a handyman probably killed her parents.

In the 1954, Dr. Sam Sheppard was found guilty of murdering his wife, Marilyn, in an incredibly notorious case.  It was the basis for the TV show and movie, The Fugitive.  After serving 10 years in prison, he was exonerated in a second trial and released. 

Multiple books have been written on the Ohio case.  The latest, by Bill James, famed baseball statistician who is also interested in murder cases, argues that Sheppard did not kill his wife, but paid the actual assailant to do it.

Regardless, Sheppard was only found guilty because of extreme behavior by the media and legal authorities.  In a less-biased hearing held in 1966, he walked away.

Even defendants drenched in publicity in non-murder cases are rarely found guilty. 

Take John Mitchell, former U.S. attorney general caught up in the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.  Few people have endured such incredible publicity when he and Richard Nixon Finance Committee Chairman Maurice Stans were indicted in 1973 on federal charges of obstructing an investigation of fugitive financier Robert Vesco following Vesco’s $200,000 contribution to the Nixon campaign.  However, in April 1974, both men were acquitted.

Later, without the same intense publicity shield, Mitchell did spend time in prison for his part in the Watergate cover-up.

In 2005, pop singing star Michael Jackson was charged with child molestation.  Under the media glare, Jackson was acquitted.

Maybe jury members want to show their independence.  Maybe publicity hides weaknesses in cases.  Whatever the reason, the results of the Anthony trial were predictable, not surprising.

Bill Lazarus is an historian who writes about current events.  His books can be found on and Kindle, in bookstores and via his website, 

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