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Casey Anthony's Not Guilty Verdict: Drum It Up To The CSI Effect

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Casey Anthony has been found not guilty of murdering her 2-year-old daughter Caylee. The jury declined to convict her of either first degree casey anthonymurder or manslaughter.  Instead, the jurors found Casey Anthony guilty on four counts of providing false information to law enforcement, which are misdemeanors.

Earlier Thursday, Judge Belvin Perry sentenced Anthony to four years in jail -- one year for each of her four convictions of lying to police -- but with credit for the approximately three years already served and good behavior, leaving her with six days left to serve. The corrections department's recalculation put that remainder at 10 days.

That means that Casey Anthony will be a free woman on July 17th.

After reaching the verdict, the country was filled with outrage and disbelief. Due to the intense public outcry of the verdict, some even compare this verdict with the OJ Simpson one.

There have been many theories explaining how a seemingly guilty Casey Anthony beat the murder charge. Some pundits place the blame on the prosecution, who only used circumstantial evidence and failed to explain how exactly Caylee Anthony was killed. Some say the prosecution should have tried to convict her on a lesser sentence.  Others blame a faulty police investigation.

I say the major reason why Casey Anthony was found not guilty lies with the jurors themselves and their failure to appreciate the extent of the evidence that was presented to them.

The Body Of Evidence

There was certainly was an impressive body of evidence showing Anthony’s guilt. First, Casey Anthony did not inform anyone that her child was missing for 31 days.  This is an immediate sign that there is something incredibly wrong with this picture. Almost any parent finds this fact alone to be an extremely damning piece of evidence.

Casey’s mother, Cindy Anthony, calls 911 because she smells a decomposed body in Casey’s car (specifically the trunk). Once the officials were aware of the situation, the police began a thorough investigation of the crime scene. The police and detectives were notified by a man who found the skeleton of Caylee Anthony wrapped up in a Winnie the Pooh blanket with duct tape attached to the skull in the nearby woods of Casey’s local neighborhood.

The most disturbing part about this unsolved mystery was that Anthony, during this 31-day period, was going out to parties with her friends and even got a tattoo on her arm that said “Bella Vita”, which means beautiful life in Italian.  This is certainly not the behavior that is indicative of a concerned mother.

The people who accompanied Anthony at these parties testified in court that they did not see any behavioral difference in her and were not even aware that the child was missing. Instead, Casey lied to her friends and said that her nanny named “Zanny” was watching her beloved child Caylee. The prosecution team found out this nanny person named “Zanny” never existed; which indefinitely helped the team formulate several other questions about Casey’s loyalty to her child and whereabouts.

The local forensics team examined Casey’s computer and discovered startling evidence. They unequivocally found words that relate to Caylee’s murder that were being searched in search engines in Casey’s browsers. The nature of these words included “neck-breaking”, “shovel”, “chloroform”, and etc.  Suspiciously, these searchers were conducted a couple of months before Caylee disappeared.

Chloroform was present in high amounts in Casey’s car but the scientist said he could not prove or disprove if this odor came from Caylee’s decomposing body. Nonetheless, the prosecution team kept on firing with authentic evidence such as finding a piece of Caylee’s brown hair in Casey’s car. A veteran FBI specialist on hair samples, Karen Korsberg Lowe, testified a 9-inch strand of light brown hair found in Casey Anthony's trunk not only matched DNA in the Anthony family, but also matched hairs pulled from Caylee's brush.

What's more, Lowe said the hair showed dark "postmortem root banding." In plain English: It came from a dead person.

Prosecutors went to scientist Arpad Vass, of the prestigious Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. He found "overwhelming" evidence in the trunk's atmosphere that a decomposed body had been in it. He also found "shockingly high" levels of chloroform in the trunk. Again, the carefully examined DNA tests of the hair came out inconclusive. At this point, the prosecution team gave their best to prove that Casey Anthony was guilty of murder, and they were positive that the jury would find favor in their evidence.

Despite this abundance of evidence, the jury announced that Caylee Anthony drowned accidentally and that Casey Anthony was not guilty of murder. How did this happen?

The CSI Effect

The CSI Effect refers to the enhanced expectations jurors have for forensic evidence — and corresponding disregard for circumstantial evidence — as a result of watching crime and punishment shows on television.

On CSI, there's always DNA. Investigators go over every clue with exquisite care, pulling fingerprints 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. 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.

And the Anthony trial was notable for its strong circumstantial evidence and serious lack of conclusive forensics. This was compromised by that fact that it took months to find Caylee’s decomposed body.

Still, there was plenty of DNA against Casey Anthony, but the jurors seemed to want more evidence, like a date of death, a time of death, a murder location and maybe even a stronger motive than Casey wanting to be a party girl instead of a mom.

But the prosecution couldn’t deliver. Its forensic evidence was not good enough (the cause of death couldn’t even be established), the crime scene itself was arguably tampered with, and the forensic evidence that did exist (like the decomposition smell in the trunk) hardly qualified as scientific. Instead of forensics, the prosecution appealed to common sense and circumstances. But it wasn’t enough for the jurors, who wanted some definitive CSI type of graphic to provide unquestionably proof that Casey Anthony was a murderer.


Circumstantial Evidence and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.

I suspect many jurors do not truly understand the meaning of beyond a reasonable doubt. This standard requires that the prosecution prove that no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts, except that the defendant committed the crime, thereby overcoming the presumption that one is innocent until proven guilty.

Thanks in part to the CSI Effect, I believe the jurors needed the prosecution to provide irrefutable DNA evidence in order to convict Casey Anthony in order to satisfy this standard. Consequently, the jurors overlooked the mountain of circumstantial evidence.

Circumstantial evidence, in spite of its indirect nature, may be of great value in a criminal case; for instance, in highlighting inconsistencies between the behavior of a suspect and his/her allegations, thereby "filling in the blanks" of a probable crime scenario. For instance, although a suspect was unseen at the crime scene, the tire prints found on the scene match those of his car and a similar car was seen in the vicinity of the crime scene around the time the crime was committed. One recent example of use of circumstantial evidence was the trial of Scott Lee Peterson, where the evidence presented was essentially circumstantial. Peterson was convicted and received the death penalty.

A judge once explained to me how circumstantial evidence can lead to the assertion of guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

I live in eastern Pennsylvania. Suppose it is a clear, sunny day with the temperature about 36 degrees on a February afternoon. I go to bed that night and I wake up the next morning and discover there are six inches on snow on the ground.

It was be safe to conclude that beyond a reasonable doubt it snowed last night, based on circumstantial evidence only. I did not observe it snowing, nor did listen to any eyewitnesses of the alleged snowstorm. Even though I have no direct evidence that it snowed last night, I am still sure beyond a reasonably doubt that it snowed last night. Sure, it is possible that my neighbor bought a snow making machine and he placed snow all around my house last night, but that notion is so highly improbable. And it would be laughable if a defense team made such a foolish suggestion.

I wish the Casey Anthony jurors could have appreciated how circumstantial evidence can achieve the standard beyond a reasonable doubt. If so, Casey Anthony would have been surely convicted.

By examining all of her lies, her failure to notify the authorities about her child’s disappearance, her unusual behavior, and even the body of Caylee Anthony, there is enough circumstantial evidence to convict.  For instance, there's no reason to put duct tape on the face of a child who's already dead. The defense made a lame attempt to counter that by asserting that ‘some other dude' put the duct tape on the baby's face—but the testimony offered to prove that was laughably weak (similar to my snow making neighbor), and thus didn't even dent the prosecution's case.

Moreover, it is most certainly the jury's duty to "connect the dots." The jury is required to consider all of the evidence and to draw the reasonable inferences that evidence suggests. Note I said reasonable - that doesn't mean concocting scenarios out of thin air based on nothing but a lawyer's opening statement.

Jurors claimed that the prosecution failure to show how exactly Caylee Anthony died as a major reason why they did no convict her of murder.  The truth is, the prosecution doesn't have to prove cause of death. It only need prove criminal agency—that the death was a homicide, as opposed to an accident. It's nice to have a body, a murder weapon, a cause of death, but it's certainly not essential. I've seen cases where not only was there no murder weapon, there was no body. There was no evidence to establish cause of death. Still, those cases resulted in convictions—in fact that jury returned a verdict of first-degree murder in one of them.

The face of Casey Anthony, just before being read the verdict, revealed to the world that she thought she was guilty of murder.

Too bad the jurors did not see what the world so obviously did. Even if it was “just” based on circumstantial evidence.

Photo Credits: AP

Contact Erik Uliasz at euliasz@philly2philly.com

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