The Fate of the Jury—Part I, Coroner’s Juries

Westminster-Coroners-Court The tabloids are still full of Casey Anthony gossip, but no mention has been made of the fate of the jurors in her murder trial. After all the cries of outrage at the verdict, after all the bubble-headed pundits who saw the verdict as a sign that jury trials were obsolete, after Judge Belvin Perry, Jr., wrote to the Florida Attorney General about the folly of the “sunshine” law that compelled him to release the jurors names, now no one cares what happened to the jurors—no one but me, apparently.

Wisely, most of the jurors seem to be hiding. Foolishly, one juror has hired a publicist.

In an insightful article about the so-called “scientific evidence” presented in the Anthony trial, Matt McCusker of the American Society of Trial Consultants explained very clearly that the Anthony jury served the role it was intended to serve; it applied common sense to the arcane machinations of the law (my interpretation of Mr. McCusker’s article).

Among the so-called scientific experts who testified against Casey Anthony was the media darling, Dr. G (medical examiner Dr. Jan Garavalia—warning, link is a noisy ad). Dr. G testified that the manner of death was homicide, based on the presence of duct tape in the vicinity of the skull and the fact that the body was transported to a wooded area in a garbage bag, a.k.a. trash bag.

Of course, this is nonsense. It’s fallacious reasoning. No real scientist would draw such a conclusion. The only conceivable reason an intelligent woman would make such a claim is that she was biased toward the state’s argument, because she is a state employee. It was clearly in her self-interest to support the state’s case, and it would clearly have been personal and professional suicide to go against public opinion.

Coroners v. Medical Examiners

The office of coroner goes back almost to the Norman Conquest in England. The coroner (or “crowner”) was the king’s representative in the counties and, as such, handled legal matters. The coroner conducted inquiries into crimes in the form of trials (inquests) in which testimony was presented to a jury. In matters of unexplained deaths, the coroner’s jury decided whether the death was of natural causes, accidental, or homicide.

Sidebar: I took the photograph above earlier this year in the city of Westminster, which is a borough of London. Westminster is the seat of the British government. I found it interesting that in Westminster there is a coroner’s court, not merely a medical examiner’s office.

Medical examiners are forensic pathologists who, like coroners, are appointed at the county level in the United States. Coroners are not forensic pathologists; they can be any citizen.

Apparently, the first medical examiner’s office in this country was established in New York City in the 1940s; board-certified forensic pathologists were first recognized in 1959. Since then, the trend has been away from coroners toward medical examiners—based on a common assumption (or perhaps mythology) that medical examiners are more objective in their judgments than the layperson.

I contend that Dr. G proves otherwise.

Coroners must convince a jury of their judgments about cause and manner of death. Medical examiners need only convince a prosecutor, a lawyer who generally knows nothing about the scientific method.

When a medical examiner pronounces a death to be a homicide, then the State is free to step in and take away the liberty of any citizen it chooses to blame.

In the Casey Anthony trial, the jury played the role of a coroner’s jury and declared that the cause of death was not proven to be homicide. The cause of death could have been accidental. It could even have been natural. The medical examiner did not have sufficient evidence to determine the cause of death, and, without a cause of death, the manner of death can never be proven.

It may rankle the mob, but that is why we have a Bill of Rights.