I have read some reporting and commentary on the Casey Anthony trial, especially in the last few days. Something went wrong there, and I too believe that the little girl died by neglect, maltreatment, or malicious intent. The mother is surely guilty of some serious, serious wrong. Although the stories constructed by the prosecution and the defense seem flimsy, still my sense of how humans behave tells me that the mother harmed her daughter enough that she died, and then with her family’s help she obliterated the physical evidence.
And yet I am not appalled or surprised by the jury’s verdict of “not guilty.” The prosecution’s case was built on circumstantial evidence. The job of a jury is to judge the facts of the case as they have been presented. Were there enough facts?
In 1998, I served as a juror on a criminal trial in Massachusetts. A teenage girl had accused her stepfather of sexually assaulting her, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts prosecuted him for the charges. Along with my fellow jurors, we found the girl, whose first name was also Jane, to be a totally credible witness, and we believed that she had been harmed by Dennis, her stepfather, and also by her mother, Wendy, who took the stand in support of her husband and undermined her daughter’s testimony.
The case built by the Commonwealth, however, became an exercise in He Said/She Said. The Quincy Police had gathered no physical evidence, no material witness.
In 2003, five years after the trial, I wrote a short account of my experience for a graduate school class on pedagogy at Simmons College. Each of us had to write in response to a prompt that one of our classmates had designed as something s/he would assign to high school or college students in a writing class. The prompt I addressed asked me to reflect on Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” and describe an experience in my life in which I had had to make a difficult choice. I didn’t pretend to be a high school writer; I wrote the essay [read it here] from my age and experience.
My account, “Another Jane: The True Story of a Verdict,” does not directly address the Casey Anthony murder trial. It does, however, illuminate how a juror — that’s me — might believe in a defendant’s utter culpability and still find him “not guilty,” which, I came to understand, is legal, codified language and not a moral judgment of innocence. The conflict between personal belief and one’s responsibility to the law is wrenching:
Our discussions in the Jurors’ Room lost coherence. […] We speculated. We guessed. We got no closer to a unanimous verdict. Some jurors were losing their patience, walking around the room, sighing, saying “I can’t wait to get out of here.”
Inside, I felt like I was breaking apart. I could not imagine voting “not guilty,” although some of my fellow jurors attempted, vigorously, to persuade me to see the trial through their eyes. I did not try to persuade my fellow jurors to change their vote to “guilty,” nor did I even want to. I tried to explain my position, over and over again, differently each time, to justify my unshakeable belief in Jane Phillips. I wanted the trial to go away, for the Judge to call us back into the courtroom and say “time’s up” and then, discovering the absence of unanimity, to release us. […] At the end of every day, during the 15-minute drive back to my house, I cried. Not just for this other Jane. I cried for myself. Cried for some end I would never get to… Cried, wanting to not choose, wanting to be absolved of the responsibility to decide.
Eventually, I and my jury did painfully decide. There’s always the option of a hung jury, of not coming to a unanimous decision, but, as the Judge addressed us all later in private, “It is good when there is a verdict to a difficult case like this. You did the right thing.”
The Court does not exist for any individual’s personal or moral sense of rightness, or for our satisfaction. It upholds a due process. I am no expert, no Nina Totenberg, but I have no doubt that jurors on the Casey Anthony trial approached their awful responsibility with great seriousness, and some degree of heartache.
First image, “Broken Pottery,” by mickeq on Flickr via a Creative Commons license. Second image, “Not Guilty Does Not Equal Innocent,” is mine.