Critics found America's system of delivering justice seriously wanting this week in two sensational criminal cases. Actually, the critics have it wrong: The system worked as it should.
The outcome in the Florida murder trial of Casey Anthony and the apparent collapse of the rape prosecution in New York City of Dominique Strauss-Kahn are hardly satisfying.
A child is dead, and damning circumstantial evidence points to the mother, yet a jury Tuesday found her not guilty of murder. The former head of the International Monetary Fund had his career wrecked on the basis of a rape accusation from an alleged victim who, it turns out, has serious credibility problems.
Criminal prosecutions, however, are not the tidy affairs seen on television dramas, where good and bad are portrayed in clear shades of black and white. In the real world, the criminal justice system in this country must deal with all the shadings of fact and fiction, all the while striving to balance the power of the government against constitutionally protected rights of the accused.
The system is designed to be fair to all sides in the pursuit of justice, even though the outcome may not always fit what some may see as the "truth."
That point was lost amid the shock and outrage that greeted the Casey Anthony jury verdict Tuesday. Millions who watched the trial on television may have been convinced of Anthony's guilt, but the jury had a different duty to perform: to say whether government prosecutors fulfilled the state's burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The jurors concluded the prosecution failed to meet that high standard, even though some of them may in their hearts believe she is guilty.
That may strike some as unfair, but the alternative is a government that can punish the innocent without the benefit of a fair trial. For the authors of the Constitution, that was so important they were willing to allow some guilty go free in exchange.
In New York, public opinion has gone full circle: First, many naturally assumed Dominique Strauss-Kahn was guilty of raping a hotel maid, based on his reputation as a sexual predator. Following disclosures that the accuser lied about important aspects of her past, the prosecutors are on the firing line for having supposedly rushed to judgment.
In fairness, the prosecutors had reason to believe initially they had a credible witness, and they rightly moved to keep the accused from fleeing to France.
Although the New York district attorney's office may have been too quick to accept the accuser's story, it deserves credit for independently investigating the details. And it deserves credit for making it public when the story unraveled, knowing that likely could sink the case.
It is worth keeping in mind that, whatever her past, the accuser could be telling the truth about what happened in that hotel room, and Strauss-Kahn may yet return to France a free man even though he might be guilty.
These two cases exposed flaws in American criminal justice, but it was designed for fairness, not perfection.
That means the public and crime victims may not see the real perpetrator punished, but it is a price worth paying to avoid punishing the wrong person.
This ran as an editorial on the Opinion Page of Wednesday's Des Moines Register. Reprinted with permission.