A Modest Proposal for Casey Anthony et al.

Yesterday, Tim Miller, President of Texas Equusearch filed a suit against Casey Anthony for reimbursement of expenses incurred during the unnecessary search for her daughter—unnecessary because Casey Anthony knew she was dead and probably knew where her body was.

In an interview with InSession, Mr. Miller explained that not only had his charitable organization spent over $112,000 to help Casey find her daughter, but some of his biggest donors had withdrawn their support. Specifically, they told him that he was not using their money wisely, since it was obvious “the mother” was involved in the child’s disappearance.

I heard that Casey’s lawyers have said they would seek to have the suit dismissed and, besides, their client was indigent.

Here’s a clue Casey et al., not only is it the right thing to do to reimburse Texas Equusearch, but a promise now to do so is your ticket to a reality show titled “Footloose and Free: Casey Anthony.”

No, I’m not kidding. Think about it: you know that right now reality show producers would kill to follow you around with a camera day and night. Unfortunately, though, some may fear the public would resent it if they found out how much they were willing to pay you for the rights to Casey Anthony’s private life.

However, if they could say that $150,000 or so of the production’s revenue would go to Texas Equusearch to pay what you owe them plus an additional tax-deductible donation, they would look like heroes.

With your own reality show, you could also pay Zanny some fair compensation for her troubles.

And you would all still come out ahead.

However, if you litigate the lawsuits, all you will do is incur substantial lawyers’ fees and court costs—and you know you can’t possible win.

Jury Selection in the Casey Anthony Trial—Part I

Yesterday, jury selection began for the Casey Anthony murder trial. Every minute of the voir dire is being broadcast nationwide on the unbelievably sleazy TruTV cable network.

Yesterday, between commercials for “Hard Core Pawn” and shysters who handle mesothelioma tort suits, TruTV exposed unnamed (but, no doubt, identifiable by their voices ) prospective jurors to public scrutiny—most of whom wished to be excused from duty due to hardships, some of which were very great hardships, indeed.

The only good that can come from such commercial exploitation of a murder trial jury is that—possibly—a potential juror somewhere in this country will learn from the spectacle that jury duty is hazardous. Better yet, maybe some legislators will learn why jury selection should not be televised.

The circuit court trial judge, Belvin Perry, Jr., did his best to prevent jury selection from being televised, but over the weekend an appeals court overturned his decision to make the location of the selection process secret.

It looks as if Florida state law prohibits any and all restrictions on the press, which suggests to this former juror that the Florida State Supreme Court or the U. S. Supreme Court needs to step in and end the ghastly practice of broadcasting jury selection.

Where in the Bill of Rights does it say that freedom of the press includes the right to expose the private affairs of non-public figures? It isn’t as if a prospective juror applies for a position on a high-profile jury like the Casey Anthony jury.

What possible benefit can be derived from the public knowing that some employers do not pay employees for time serving on jury duty? Or that a person who has been selected at random does not feel she speaks English well? Or that another person has a family that could not drive to Orlando because the family automobile is over twenty years old? Or that another person who can’t claim hardship and might be able to serve on a jury has diabetes?

A few of the questions asked of the prospective jurors surprised me. Most significantly, the judge asked some jurors what opinion they had formed in the case—not just whether they had formed an opinion. Several people were forced to say they had already decided that the defendant is guilty. Each of them seemed highly distressed by having to admit this, as if it was a character flaw—when it is really evidence of strength of character.  I really think it’s very unfair to force an honest citizen to do this in public.

The Voir Dire Experience

Voir dire is the process of questioning prospective jurors. Its purpose is to reveal possible biases that might incline a juror to vote for or against one of the sides, regardless of the courtroom presentations. But what really happens in voir dire is that the attorneys try to get rid of potential jurors based on a stereotypical classification system, called “Scientific Jury Selection,” in other words superstition.

I have been involved in voir dire twice.  Neither was a pleasant experience—even though neither was broadcast or observed by the press. I can’t imagine having to endure it on the air.

I was chosen to serve on a criminal court jury in the Cook County Criminal Courthouse. Voir dire was conducted in a courtroom behind bulletproof glass. That alone was enough to terrify every prospective juror.

Inexplicably, the heat was turned up, even though it was summer. A court reporter sat at a computer in front of the jury box, where jurors could read what was being typed on the screen. When the attorneys, defendant, and judge retreated into chambers, we could read what they were saying about us behind closed doors, because the reporter followed them with a portable keyboard.

The judge conducted the voir dire; the lawyers asked no questions. Frankly, I don’t think they cared: the prosecutors thought it was an open-and-shut case; the public defender was planning to argue that his client was guilty of two charges, regardless of the fact that he had pled not guilty.

Every prospective juror was nervous. Most of us responded to questions with a bit of a quiver in our voices. Some could barely speak—they literally choked up.

The defendant glared at us. A translator reiterated every one of our words in loud Spanish (not whispered in the defendant’s ear), so that it was impossible to think. Oddly, all Hispanic prospective jurors were excused. Because they didn’t ask any of the rest of us if we spoke any Spanish, not even “un poco,” at least one of the selected jurors turned out to be fluent in Spanish and had been able to understand the translator. Once we were in the jury room, she said she didn’t know how she would be able to concentrate during the trial, because she couldn’t help but listen to what the translator was saying.

The jury summons in Illinois includes an intrusive questionnaire, which prospective jurors are required to fill out before they arrive at court. These questions are yes/no. If you answer in the affirmative, then you must fill in a free-form explanation. The questions primarily relate to previous experience with the justice system—including the experiences of one’s extended family. When I was asked about my prior court experience, including the experiences of my family members as noted on the questionnaire, I had to reveal a very embarrassing situation involving a member of my family. It wasn’t until I had revealed this information to the whole court that the judge said we could ask to be interviewed  privately in her chambers. Another prospective juror revealed he had been sexually assaulted as a teen.

Some Small Rays of Light on the Process

Yesterday, most of the prospective jurors demonstrated that they did not want to serve on this jury. That speaks volumes about the good character of these people. No one should want to serve on the Casey Anthony jury. Justice cannot be served in this trial. Not only can nothing bring back the little girl who died, but there is no justification for the taxpayers of Florida to spend millions in order to execute a young woman who clearly has a personality disorder. Casey Anthony is over-charged. If she had been charged with neglect, abuse, and second-degree murder two years ago, she would be serving a long prison sentence right now.

And if the press had not sensationalized the Anthony family tragedy, most of us would never have heard her name—and we wouldn’t be any the worse for it.

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“Does anyone in Florida understand what justice is?—Florida v Kananen

CNN’s In Session is reprising a first-degree murder case in which the adult daughter of abusive parents abetted her adult brother’s murder of their mother. The salacious “episode” is titled “Mummified Mother Found Buried Under Rock Garden,” and the CNN commentators describe the “show” as a “Front Row Seat to Justice.” But a murder trial isn’t something a sane person wants a “front-row” seat to (since the front row includes the defendant’s chair), and in this case there is no justice involved.

Florida v Stacey Kananen could be a poster child for the ill-conceived Senate Bill 714 about which I wrote recently. S.714 allegedly seeks to publicize the following serious problems in the American justice system:

  • the absurdity of the United States having the largest prison population in the world, of which the largest part are incarcerated on minor charges such as drug possession
  • the role of DNA evidence in false convictions
  • the fact that prison sentences are becoming more and more lengthy
  • and the severity of punishments varies greatly from state to state

Stacey Kananen’s conviction adds one more relatively harmless person to the prison population; she was overcharged with first-degree murder for being an accessory to murder, thus causing her sentence to be out of all proportion to her crime; the only evidence against her was her brother’s confession and accusation, which was produced rather late in his own prosecution (why anyone would believe a confessed murderer about the complicity of anyone else, on his testimony alone, is beyond my understanding).

The law also needs to understand the role of childhood abuse in producing psychopaths and sociopaths. Society as a whole would be a much safer place if families could be rescued from the psychopaths and sociopaths who too often enslave and torture them. In the Kananen case the only serious psychopath or sociopath may have been the father, although it does seem as if the son is seriously damaged goods.

Sidebar: Nowhere in S.714 is there any mention of the absurd legal definition of insanity, which puts schizophrenics in prison because they claim that a voice told them to kill the evil ones (thus proving they know right from wrong. How else could they identify the evil ones?).

No, I don’t know how to rescue such families without permitting the government to intrude in every family’s privacy. The “human services” in government as often overlook abuse as they intervene to good effect. I’ve been told that fads in social work often return abuse victims to their abusers’ care with little more than a promise “to be good.”

Florida’s laws, in particular, strike me as bizarre. In Florida (until the Supremes “corrected” the state) laws put a minor in jail for life essentially for a parole violation. In Florida a mother who neglected and then apparently abused her child until she died (Casey Anthony) can be put on trial for capital murder, while a woman in Illinois who cut the baby out of another woman’s womb (and murdered her) because it was her boyfriend’s child is simply sent to prison. In Florida, witnesses in trials involving family members are subjected to public scrutiny and ridicule on CNN, with their tearful words hyphenated by commercials about a TV series on jerks jumping off roofs into basketball hoops.

Overzealous Prosecutors

Most states seem to have a plethora of overzealous prosecutors who grandstand in the courtroom in order to be reelected. I can’t explain Stacey Kenanen’s prosecution for first-degree murder as anything but that. (This, it seems to me, a non-lawyer, is the best argument against allowing cameras inside courts.)

Stacey Kananen’s brother admits to having suffocated his mother and then burying her body in his sister’s backyard. He claims she first tasered their mother (to subdue her, I guess, even though he weighed 400 pounds at the time), but he also admits to having been jealous and resentful of Stacey’s better treatment by their psychopathic, alcoholic father.

CNN’s Choices

Freaks and geeks have always been crowd-pleasers—in the Middle Ages it was bear-bating; in the 19th century it was the tattooed lady (before you get another tattoo take a look at some old photos of these women) and geeks who bit the heads off live chickens. Now that we’ve supposedly evolved into a more humane society, I would expect better.

It’s difficult to find anything that isn’t freakish in the entertainment media. Animated Avatars with blue skin and long necks (remember Cecil?) fall prey to the evil human creatures (in other words, us). Paris Hilton gets drunk and goes to jail. TruTV brings you Dumbest and In Session, which ignores all the really vital legal issues in this country in favor of bringing you the tragedies that occur in ordinary people’s bedrooms and backyards (and which ought to stay there. That’s what they mean when they say “Let sleeping dogs lie”).


“Now it’s up to the jury to decide” Michigan v Springer

That’s what CNN’s voice-over announced today in its broadcast of the verdict and sentencing of the Michigan couple charged with child abuse, torture, and murder of their special needs child. And that’s exactly what’s wrong with the criminal justice system: it’s always left to a jury of conscientious citizens to decide what to do when something horrible happens to children. No one in the massive state bureaucracy ever has to clean up the mess. No wonder no one wants to be a juror.

In Session needlessly sensationalized the Springer family tragedy as if it was a case of Cinderella tormented by an evil stepmother and wicked stepsisters. They called it “the Cinderella syndrome.” But by no stretch of this mystery writer’s imagination was any of the characters in this story a Cinderella.

Sadly, the victim was no Cinderella. She wasn’t the golden-haired, perfect daughter of a loving father, whom the stepmother and stepsisters envied. Callista Springer had numerous mental disorders that no one—not even the kindest, wisest psychologist on Earth—could have cured. It should have surprised no one that her parents weren’t capable of treating her well while protecting their other children from her influence and disruption of their lives.

Sidebar: It also came out during sentencing that the so-called evil stepmother was also being abused behind the closed door of the old house that burned down. Oops. Maybe CNN shouldn’t have called Mrs. Springer the evil one; after all, they had the benefit of hindsight, because the verdict and sentence were already decided when they began their broadcast two weeks ago.

Before CNN’s cameras went into that Michigan courtroom, the justice system ought to have made sure this case never went before a jury. The prosecutor was wrong to prosecute this as anything but a case of child abuse and manslaughter. Had the prosecutor not insisted on murder and torture charges, the defendants would likely have pled guilty or at least have waived their right to a jury trial. Surely they would not have asked their surviving daughter to testify in public.

Jury trials are all about the community’s response to a crime. Jurors represent the community. Jury trials, unfortunately, are also all about publicity. Prosecutors and judges (who have to be elected and reelected) need the media to keep their jobs.

In this case, the community and the state’s justice system were as much at fault as the parents. The state’s child welfare agency failed the victim; her extended family failed the victim; the school system failed the victim. The doctors who treated her failed her, too.

It shouldn’t have been “up to the jury.”

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Cinderella’s Classmates and Commercial Exploitation

Witnesses’ faces should be obscured on camera, every time a trial is broadcast on commercial TV. Yesterday CNN’s In Session broadcast a young, former classmate of fire victim Calista Springer.

Enough. Please.

In Session’s current coverage of the trial of two parents for the murder of their child (Michigan v Springer) is all the evidence I need to claim that non-investigative, non-expert witnesses deserve privacy rights. Most such witnesses should not be forced to have their faces broadcast on cable TV.

The seemingly endless coverage of the Springer prosecution’s case has displayed far too-many private citizens’ faces: a grandmother of the victim, stepsisters, cousins, in-laws, grade-school teachers, and more. Since the defense has yet to present its case (or cases), all these witnesses have appeared for the prosecution, but were forced to do so on camera. All—no matter how closely related to the family or how estranged—have presented a very dismal picture of the parenting skills and characters of the defendants. Unfortunately, not all these witnesses have presented good pictures of themselves, either.

Sidebar: Because I respect these peoples’ rights, not only to privacy but to their own opinions, I won’t enumerate the biased opinions that some of these witnesses expressed on the witness stand or in TV interviews. However, I think the CNN commentators ought to point out that in a murder trial witnesses are understood to have biases—understood by the law, that is, although apparently not by TV commentators. When the judge finally instructs the Springer jury, he will undoubtedly tell them to make up their own minds about the truth of what the witnesses said. But it seems to me as if CNN’s anchors have accepted every prosecution witness at face value.

The Springer trial isn’t the only trial in which CNN broadcast children’s faces. Elaine Clermont’s daughter was shown on camera, even though she did not testify in her mother’s trial. In the trial of police officer Ron Killings, CNN broadcast the face of a very young child who was ultimately deemed unfit to testify. In every trial, CNN shows mothers of victims, children of defendants who plead for mercy for their parents—this is entirely unnecessary.

Several times I’ve been seduced into commenting in this blog on witnesses (sisters-in-law, step-daughters, brothers) who appeared to me to be vindictive and/or self-serving during the broadcast of their testimony. After all, a trial is a public event at public expense, and when it’s broadcast on cable it seemed to me that it ought to be fair game for commentary. But I’ve changed my mind: it isn’t. I won’t do this again.

Look at what media coverage has done to Casey Anthony’s family: pickets have surrounded their house; they’ve been accused of incest; they’ve been suspected of complicity in murder. In Florida, the courts have so little respect for privacy, videotapes of Casey meeting with her parents in jail have been broadcast across the country.

Trials must be public if liberty is important to us. America can’t conduct Star Chamber prosecutions. Cameras should be present in all courtrooms, and the public should have a way of monitoring the proceedings while they’re in progress. The technology exists to accomplish this via the Internet. CNN’s occasional live broadcasts are also informative—live, unedited.

But, edited cable broadcasts of completed trials (such as the Springer trial) aren’t a good idea, in my opinion. Grandmothers ought not to be interviewed in order to reminisce about a deceased grandchild and express uninformed opinions about her mental state. Snippets of a teenage sister’s testimony in support of her parents ought not to be used as trailers to a commercial broadcast. School children who testify should never be shown on camera. The faces of grade-school teachers should not be exposed on cable TV. (And the interrogation of a possible witness most certainly ought not to be shown on TV.) Footage of witness testimony ought not to be edited into a dramatic montage.

American law supposedly protects private citizens from public criticism: libel and slander laws prohibit defamatory comments about private citizens. Most of CNN’s In Session commentators are lawyers who know how to characterize bystander witnesses such as those I’ve mentioned without expressly defaming them, but it seems to me exposing them to public scrutiny is an invasion of their privacy, whether or not TV commentators are polite to them.

Furthermore, once a defendant is convicted, then positive commentary on the prosecution’s case and critical commentary on the defense’s case are fair game. Unfortunately, as a consequence, when a cable program such as In Session edits a trial and then presents it after the verdict, the commentators feel free to express highly critical, defamatory opinions of the defense without fear. For example, Calista Springer’s stepsisters have been likened to the stepsisters in Cinderella and were accused of “picking on” her. This is grossly unfair to them.

Many aspects of In Session’s new format are quite good. I like the new, on-staff trial commentators, who are measured in their remarks. The live coverage of breaking news is very good. However, the commercials that air on TruTV are entirely inappropriate: I can take only so many clips of drunks being arrested in any context, but in the context of real life-and-death matters it’s grotesque. And even though In Session repeatedly assures its audience that no testimony is being edited out, in fact it’s clear that the trial coverage is severely edited: the only thing that should be cut out is the faces of private citizens.

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Juror privacy rights?

I’ve said before that lawyers fear jurors (and it’s clearly because they know they can’t control jurors and aren’t even sure they can persuade them). Surfing the web, I’ve come across several lawyer blogs with a “teach-em-to-heel” theme. One that’s very interesting is a WI lawyer’s blog (she seems to want to remain nameless) called “Deliberations.”

  • Caveat: Turn off your speakers before you click the link, because you’ll get a Starbuck’s ad and then a loud TV voice.

But, if you’re on your way to jury duty, I urge you to study this site. Among the most interesting items there is a “Voir Dire Resources” link. Included are real jury questionnaires. They will shock you if you think jurors have a right to privacy.

Take a look at People v. Juan Luna (Brown’s Chicken Massacre, a case that took decades to solve). I note that the document is labeled “proposed,” so I don’t know that it was actually used in the trial. Let’s hope not.

Why? First, a prospective juror’s responses to the questions are public. They are provided to both the defense and the prosecution in advance of voir dire so the lawyers can ask further questions. Voir dire is conducted in open court, in front of not only the accused, his friends, family, and gang, but also the public, which may include bloggers and journalists.

Once a juror is selected to serve, the questionnaires and the voir dire become part of the official trial records. These records are available to the public after the trial. If the losing side in a trial wishes, it can pursue legal action against a juror based on the questionnaire and voir dire responses (perjury charges, for example).

Now I’m all for honest jurors without an ax to grind. And I appreciate lawyers’ fears that a lying, bitter, prejudiced citizen might end up on a jury. But the vast majority of people who serve on juries aren’t like that—but they give up their privacy anyway.

In the People v. Juan Luna questionnaire, note that right up front they want your Social Security Number. (I guess they never heard of identity theft or at least don’t care if jurors end up with ruined credit when the defendant’s deadbeat brother gets hold of the questionnaire.)

On page 3, the questionnaire asks not only for your complete, current address but also all prior addresses since the crime occurred. Why? Because the lawyers plan to do a complete credit search and background search and they want you to make it easy for them. All they really need to know legally is that you are a citizen residing in the court’s jurisdiction and there’s no reason to believe you can’t be objective. How does your residential history figure into that?

Questions 9 and 10 (smallest and largest communities in which the juror ever resided) are a trick to get the juror to reveal addresses before the crime occurred—completely irrelevant but useful for impugning a juror.

Then it gets really personal. I’ll let you read that for yourself, but I would like to point out that it asks for personal information about everyone in your extended family, your employers, and your friends and acquaintances. In other words, they want prospective jurors to expose private matters of everyone in their social network, not only themselves. In the two voir dire sessions I sat through, the judge asked everyone about family members prior involvement in trials—that’s all. I felt this was intrusive, foolish me.

The only question they forgot to ask was: What is your Facebook login ID and password?

If I ever receive a summons with a questionnaire like this attached, I plan to consult a lawyer before I respond.