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J. KARL MILLER: What is reasonable doubt?

Thursday, July 28, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:50 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 28, 2011

The trial of Casey Anthony, charged with the murder of her 3-year-old daughter, Caylee Anthony, is history. The jury not only submitted a finding of not guilty on the charge of first degree murder but similarly one of not guilty of manslaughter and aggravated child abuse. Although the trial proceedings are, in fact, history, the case is not going away quietly, nor does it appear that it will fade below the horizon anytime soon.

That it remains on the skyline is not surprising — the death of a child, particularly under circumstances deemed suspicious, is one that Americans and other civilized people find difficult to assimilate mentally. And the particulars indicate that there exists a set of circumstances so bizarre as to attract the country’s undivided attention.

Inasmuch as anyone who reads a daily newspaper or views TV news coverage has been provided an overdose of information on the Anthony trial, I will not rehash the evidence, lack thereof, nor the proceedings. It is obvious that most people hold definite opinions concerning the guilt or innocence of Casey Anthony, the majority of whom seem to disbelieve her innocence. On the other hand, much of the media opinions, bolstered by such legal luminaries as Harvard School of Law's Professor Alan Dershowitz side with the decision of the jury.

Those of the defense lawyer community, syndicated columnists and commentators in agreement with the jury’s not guilty verdict cite the lack of forensic evidence as to time and cause of death — opining that far too much of the evidence was circumstantial in nature. Hundreds currently imprisoned were convicted on circumstantial evidence — in this case that evidence was sufficient to conclude death by homicide but not found conclusive by this jury.

I did not watch any of the trial nor am I an attorney; accordingly, much of what I offer is pure opinion. However, having graduated from the U.S. Navy's School of Naval Justice in Newport, R.I. (Lawyer’s Course), served as a legal officer, a trial and defense counsel in Special Courts Martial and as a member and president of Special and General Courts Martial, I am confident my opinions are of the informed stripe. Additionally, although I have not been selected to serve, I have been called for jury duty and undergone the voir dire process.

Consequently, by means of observation, experience and conjecture, I have concluded that many who are selected to serve as jurors do not fully understand the scope and meaning of “reasonable doubt.” In a criminal case, the prosecution must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to the jury or to the judge in a bench trial. Should the prosecution fail to prove the elements beyond this threshold, a not guilty verdict is adjudged.

Reasonable doubt is that established by the evidence from which a reasonable person may infer the defendant’s non-guilt. While the standards of proof in a criminal trial are higher than the “preponderance of evidence” or “clear and convincing evidence” required in civil proceedings, “reasonable” in the "beyond a reasonable doubt"  means just that — the standards by which a reasonable person may find an accused not guilty.

The oft quoted “beyond a shadow of a doubt” is not the standard of proof nor are the “but what if” and “yes but” demurrals cautioned against by the law professors at the School of Naval Justice as false bridges to doubt. However, jurors are human beings who are products of their environment and subject also to the persuasive influence, often erroneous, of TV lawyer and criminal shows as well as the legal “experts” dredged up by TV talking heads.

In the Anthony case, I find myself in accord with those convinced of the mother’s guilt. The circumstantial evidence should have been enough for a jury to rule it a homicide. Casey Anthony was surely responsible for her daughter's care and well-being. Her disappearance, the failure to report it, the total lack of an explanation for Caylee’s disappearance and subsequent failure to report it and her cavalier, dismissive attitude should have triggered a sense that something was sorely amiss.

I can see why the panel may have rejected first-degree murder due to a lack of provable intent but manslaughter and child endangerment due to willful disregard of a toddler’s well-being and safety should have been a slam dunk. There is no greater responsibility than that of a parent to a child — willful abdication of that obligation should be considered a capital offense.

If there is a saving grace in this attempt at justice, it is that Casey Anthony was not found “innocent;” instead, she was found “not guilty.”  That, however, is small solace for the tragic and abhorrent snuffing out of a precious young life, without a judgment lodged against the person accountable.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.

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Comments

Tim Dance July 28, 2011 | 4:30 p.m.

People of modest means vote for against their own self interest and vote Republican. It is not a stretch for people to let a child killer go free. They both get away with murder.

(Report Comment)
Jean Dimpfl July 28, 2011 | 10:01 p.m.

A man in my community, the father of an 8 year old girl, was just released from jail after five years awaiting trial for allegedly killing her and her little girl friend.
He was guilty as sin...everyone knew that,... except he wasn't the killer.
After 5 years behind bars, mistreated by the police who predetermined he was guilty, vilified by just about everybody, this grieving father was set free when DNA identified another man in prison for a more recent murder, was found to be the killer.
Had I been a member of the Anthony jury I may have come to a different conclusion, but from a distance I did not see the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.
Justice is very precious and equally elusive. This beautiful little girl will not be brought back no matter what the jury's decision. On the other hand, her mother, unlike the grieving father in the above story will never be free again. If she knows what happened to Caylee, the face of every little girl will remind her and if she doesn't know she will always be thought of as a vicious killer. In that is the justice for the little girl now among the angles.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 29, 2011 | 4:15 a.m.

"...after five years awaiting trial..."

Is your community located in the United States? Our Constitution grants an accused the right to a speedy trial. "Speedy" is obviously a relative term, and it isn't uncommon to see a year go by, but five years?

This is the second instance this month where it seems there's ignorance as to the content of the Constitution.

(Report Comment)

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