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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Reality TV and Justice

Through an unusual twist of fate which doesn't need to be explained here, last Thursday I found myself stuck in a room for about an hour with nothing to do but watch a TV that was tuned to CNN Headline News.  Given the circumstances that had me in that room to begin with, it would have been inappropriate for me to change the channel.

Last Thursday was the second day after the Casey Anthony verdict, a media circus I'd gone to great lengths to avoid.  Specifically, at the time I was in that room, the judge was hearing arguments about whether or not the names of the jurors should be made public.

I know a lot of people feel pretty strongly that Casey Anthony should have been found guilty of murdering her daughter Caylee.  Alan Dershowitz wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (click here to read it) that explained why the outcome was what it was, and a couple of the jurors have publicly stated that as much as they wanted to find her guilty, the prosecution just didn't provide enough evidence to justify that verdict.

Most of the posts I've seen on Facebook, however, as well as comments on online news articles and interviews with 'random people on the street,' suggest that many people are angry about the verdict, believing that Casey Anthony got away with murder.  That's all well and good; people are entitled to voice their opinions, and that's what Faceook, message boards, and interviews are for.

But can we trust people to leave it at voicing their opinions on social media sites, or when asked by a roving reporter?

According to my forced TV-watching, at least one juror had expressed "very serious security concerns" to the judge, and most of the jurors had communicated to him that they wished to be left alone, to keep their privacy.  A juror's family had already reported being stalked by someone angry about the case, and the judge read one comment which involved the writer's wish to "filet the jury, pour salt on them, and feed their legs to a piranha."

The attorneys for the media argued that it's in the public's interest to know who these jurors are, and if there are credible security concerns, the jurors can and should be protected.  The judge feels that these jurors were compelled to come and do their civic duty, and shouldn't have the added burden of an unwanted spotlight being shined on them, recognizing that there is a real risk that people might take out their anger on these jurors.

I find myself torn on this issue.  On the one hand, I agree that there is a danger in making jury anonymity the norm.  As many psychological studies have proven, people get more reckless, less responsible, and sometimes just plain mean when their actions are divorced from their identity.  (Think about how many obnoxious comments you've read on a message board by someone named "RighteousDude447" or something like that.  How many obnoxious comments are posted by someone who puts their actual name?  If you are one who comments regularly, do you do it under your own name?  If not, would having to put your real name change what you would say or how you would say it?)  I don't know that we want to try defendants in front of a jury of RighteousDude447s.  A defendant in this country is entitled to be tried before a jury of his or her peers, and those peers are representative of the community the defendant is a part of as well as the community that has been wronged.  Any one of us could end up as a defendant, rightly or wrongly, and we must rely on the representatives of our community to decide the rightness or wrongness of the charges against us.  The jurors must then take responsibility for their judgment for or against one of their own back to the community which they represent.  Keeping their identities secret means they don't have to take responsibility for their decision.  I agree with the media lawyers' argument that this could cause the American public to lose faith in the judicial system.

That's the argument for revealing the jurors' identities.

Here's my argument against.

We are no longer a civil enough society to expect restraint and self-control from ourselves.  While most people wouldn't get violent against these jurors, there are enough people who would that we must err on the side of caution.  Even without the risk of physical violence, there are enough people who would verbally assault the jurors that I feel their requests for anonymity must be respected.

We are no longer a society that accepts representation.  We want our own voices heard and heeded.  Even as many of us do everything we can to avoid jury duty ourselves, we watch the trial on TV as though it were American Idol, or maybe Survivor.  Or we don't watch it at all, we just listen to the daily soundbites as our news, and we expect Casey Anthony's guilt to be clear and obvious, and we expect the verdict to be what we think it should be, without considering the very specific mandate given to the actual jurors, and the requirements that must be met in order for the verdict to be guilty. And when the jurors do other than what we want them to do, we blame them.  Some of us are willing to hear why, but many of us are too busy reveling in our righteous indignation to be bothered with the facts and the subtleties.  It's not for the sake of the public's trust in the judicial system that people want the names of the jurors released; it's for the entertainment value.  It's as though we're angry about an unexpected plot twist, and we want to take it out on the stars of this new reality TV drama.  But this isn't reality TV; it's reality.  It's life.  It's the judicial system in action, unfortunately confused with shows like Law & Order (and its many spin-offs) which are entertainment.  I read an article recently that reported something like only 12% of high school seniors in the United States can correctly identify the three branches of our government.*  Yet not even knowing that much about the judicial system, hoards of angry people are declaring that Caylee Anthony has been denied justice, and some of those angry hoards hold the jurors personally responsible, with one online article calling them the twelve stupidest people walking in America today.  Would you want to be publicly known as one of the jurors who acquitted Casey Anthony?  I know I wouldn't.

If privacy is respected, the jurors can still choose to come forward.  One that I'm aware of already has, and has given an interview, with her name attached, to ABC.  Two more have spoken to the press under the condition of anonymity.  And yet another one has offered to give the whole, inside story of the proceedings to whomever will pay him $50,000.  That's entertainment, folks.

In time this will all die down, and no one will care about the jurors anymore.  You could say it's just a short-term problem; fifteen minutes of fame only last fifteen minutes, after all.  But some people don't want even fifteen minutes in the spotlight, or they aren't cut out for it, and, with the possible exception of the guy who's willing to sell his story, none of these jurors sought it out.  I'm reminded of Robert O'Donnell, the paramedic who rescued "Baby Jessica" from the well in 1987.  He was just an ordinary guy doing his job, but unlike most rescues by paramedics, this one came with instant nationwide fame.  Very quickly he was forgotten, but his fifteen minutes in the spotlight affected him in unhealthy ways.  A few years later his marriage broke up.  He was accused of abusing prescription drugs, and his career was over.  In 1995, at the age of 37, he took his own life.  Those who knew him insist that his downfall was caused by the media attention surrounding that rescue.  He wasn't equipped to handle the spotlight.  And that was before the internet, and he was known for something indisputably positive.  Can we honestly say that all the jurors on the Casey Anthony trial will handle it better?  Judges and lawyers know the risks of a high profile case, and choose to participate in them for their own reasons (hopefully a sense that justice must prevail, but I'm sure the money's pretty good, too).  Jurors aren't given a choice.

Getting people to show up for jury duty is hard enough.  Lost time at work, childcare issues, sometimes such heavy restrictions on your movements and conversations that your closest relationships we really want to add the risk that you will be publicly burned in effigy by RighteousDude447 and thousands others like him?  He might think it's like reality TV, but it could be your life we're talking about here.

*  If you weren't in that 12%, the three branches of our government are Executive, Legislative, and Judicial.

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