woody_zimmerman_118_2007In recent weeks we have been flooded with reports about the trial of Casey Anthony, who was charged with first-degree murder in the death of her two-year-old daughter, Caylee. The trial was held in Orlando, Florida, where the child’s death had occurred in June 2008. Ms. Anthony has been incarcerated since the partially decomposed body of her daughter was found in a wooded area.

So many evidentiary details emerged during the subsequent investigation and trial that it is impossible to relate them coherently here. No doubt, several books on the events are being prepared, even as we speak. One salient detail was the highly suspicious fact that Ms. Anthony didn’t report the disappearance of her daughter for a full month. There was also a report of a “foul smell” in the trunk of Casey Anthony’s car. Ms. Anthony evidently lied about a non-existent nanny supposedly kidnapping her daughter. And she was depicted as a “hard partier” who appeared unaffected by her daughter’s disappearance.

Public opinion quickly went against Ms. Anthony, and a guilty-verdict was widely expected. Evidently, though, the prosecution’s case was long on salacity but short on specific evidence linking the accused to the actual crime. No fingerprints or other forensic evidence were presented that would convince a jury that she was guilty of murder, beyond a “reasonable doubt” – that familiar but often-misunderstood jurisprudential standard for conviction by “twelve good men and true.” In Orlando, seven women and five men found the prosecution’s case for the crime of capital murder unconvincing. After deliberations of only eleven hours – a very short span for a case of this gravity – they found Ms. Anthony “not guilty” on charges of first-degree murder, aggravated manslaughter and aggravated child abuse

Part of the prosecution’s difficulty was that an odor does not transfer well to a courtroom, as evidence. Fingerprints can be photographed. Hair can be captured and tested. Footprints can be reproduced via plaster castings. Other physical evidence can be collected and cited. DNA tests can be made on blood and skin fragments, etc., etc. But odor is, by definition, entirely in the nose of the sniffer. It is notoriously difficult to capture in a form that can be examined and cited as evidence. If there was a “suspicious” smell in the trunk of Ms. Anthony’s car, the jury could be informed of it only by means of an expert’s testimony. And the defense would almost certainly trot out their own opposing expert, who would testify that the smell was nothing more than the smell of rotting celery or a mislaid pork chop. The presiding judge allowed none of this, however, so the evidence of “odor” could not be considered by the jury. No hair, skin, blood, threads, or other concrete forensic evidence that might have linked Ms. Anthony to her daughter’s body were found in her car or anywhere else.

"The prosecution put out a lot of dots, but they couldn't connect them," said Lawrence Kobilinsky, Chair of the Department of Sciences at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. (Mr. Kobilinsky advised Anthony's attorneys on the forensic case against her, but was not directly involved in the trial.)

Some commentators have speculated that prosecutors might have thought the emotional weight of this wretched crime against a beautiful little girl would be so great that a strong case would not be needed to convict. I don’t know if that assessment is correct. No one can know it except the prosecutorial team. If it is close to being correct, however, it was certainly a significant misjudgment. The jury discharged its duty correctly, as juries are supposed to do. They did not see a case proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and they had to bring a finding of “not guilty.”

During the trial, the defense presented an alternate theory in which Caylee Anthony accidentally drowned in their swimming pool, and Ms. Anthony and her father attempted to disguise the accident as a crime by covering the dead child’s mouth with tape. The prosecution pooh-poohed this theory, saying that it was not possible to make an accident look like a crime. Did this introduce an element of reasonable doubt? Again, we don’t know, as the jurors are not talking. But they were unconvinced on the evidence presented. They did find Ms. Anthony guilty of lying to police, for which she was sentenced to four years imprisonment. With consideration of time already served, she will be released on July 13th.

Is it a crime to delay reporting a child missing for an entire month? I don’t know. Probably not. Perhaps it is “negligent,” in the sense of failing to care for a child properly. A finding of guilty on that charge might have been produced, but prosecutors did not bring that charge. They went for the “gold,” as lawyers might say – gambling everything on obtaining a capital conviction that might have brought fame to them and death to Casey Anthony. It was, however, a “bridge too far.”

I’m not happy that the life of a beautiful child was carelessly wasted. I’m not happy when any life is wasted. The murder of a paunchy middle-aged businessman by muggers in a dark alley barely merits a desultory paragraph in the local newspaper. A Korean shopkeeper is blown away by robbers – ho-hum. We have a value-scale for murder, and a lovely young child is naturally near the top of it. But this doesn’t mean our rule of law is laid aside in such a case. I don’t know if Ms. Anthony was involved in her daughter’s death, but I am very glad that she could not be convicted on a weak case. So should we all.

A second case caught my eye this week as I browsed the on-line news reports. It involved the conviction of Jerome Ersland, 59, an Oklahoma City pharmacist who shot one of two robbers who had confronted him in his store on May 19, 2009, wearing ski masks and demanding money. Mr. Ersland fired a single shot, striking Antwun Parker, 16, in the head; he then chased the other assailant, Jevontai Ingram, out of the store. At the time, Mr. Ersland evidently did not realize that only Ingram was armed. Medical experts later determined that Parker’s wound was not fatal.

After chasing Ingram, Mr. Ersland returned to the store, obtained another pistol, and proceeded to fire five shots into the prostrate Parker at point-blank range, wounding him fatally. It was for this act that he was charged with first-degree murder. A jury brought a conviction in Oklahoma City on July 11, 2011, with District Judge Ray Elliott presiding. Judge Elliott pronounced a sentence of life imprisonment, with the possibility of parole, as recommended by the jury.

This case has also excited much reaction from the public – mostly from parties decrying the sentence as “unjust” or excessive. Mr. Ersland is widely depicted as defending his business and protecting two female employees from harm. As he was led from court, Mr. Ersland responded to a reporter’s question by calling the sentence “an injustice of a monumental proportion.”

As has often been said, everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts. A video camera in Mr. Ersland’s store clearly showed him methodically executing the teen he had wounded with his first shot. There was, by all accounts, no mistaking his murderous intent. If “excessive force” has any meaning at all, Mr. Ersland clearly exceeded it.

To be as fair as possible, I admit that I have not had the pleasure of staring down the barrel of a gun held by a person of mal-intent. Nor have I fired defensively, myself, at an assailant. This means that I cannot properly gauge the fear or the rush of adrenalin that one might experience in such a situation. No doubt, it is entirely different from coolly considering the events in a secure courtroom or at a keyboard in one’s cozy study. Was Mr. Easland acting under the influence of the danger he had just experienced? Had he temporarily lost his mind? We’ll never know. Maybe he doesn’t know himself. (I could easily believe so.)

Apart from a plea of “temporary insanity,” however, the law does not recognize mitigation by reason of adrenalin. Trials depend on evidence – as we saw in the Anthony case. For Mr. Ersland, the visual evidence of his actions was unmistakable. He meant to kill that wounded teen, and he did it.

I’m sorry for Mr. Ersland and his family, and I’m sorry for the family of Antwun Parker. A boy did something stupid and wrong, and he lost his life over it. Mr. Ersland lost his sense of proportion, and he will now lose his freedom for that moment of intemperance. Nothing about this case brings any satisfaction except the assurance, again, that a jury has done its duty, as it should have done. It is cold comfort, though.