When the news came Tuesday that Casey Anthony had been found not guilty in the murder of her daughter, much of the country screamed in outrage that a woman might be getting away with murder. I wish at least half of that outrage could be mustered for the innocent people sitting in prisons today.
I grew up believing that police officers were our friends and that the legal system protected the rights of the innocent. I’ve lost a lot of faith in both of those beliefs. Things I’ve seen and read lead me to believe the an arrogant, out-of-control police culture has taken root — and that an overburdened, inadequate and cynical legal system has lost the ability to protect those who are innocent.
I’m much, much more worried about these issues than I am in the possibility that one cold, remorseless and lying woman might have gotten away with causing her child’s death.
Have you heard of Cory Maye? If it hadn’t been for the tireless work of Radley Balko while he was at Reason magazine, I’d have never heard of him. (Click here to watch an excellent 24-minute video produced by Reason.TV about the case. And click here for the archives of stories about Maye at Balko’s blog, The Agitator, which is on my personal list of sites to check ever day.) And if Balko and some other people hadn’t brought serious legal talent to bear, Maye would still be sitting on death row in a Mississippi prison for murder when he was clearly only guilty of trying to protect his daughter from unidentified men with guns when police raided his home by mistake. Instead, he’s now awaiting release after paperwork is processed. In a plea deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter to avoid another trial — because he can get out of prison now because of the time he’s already served.
The simple truth is that many, many people in this country are sitting in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Many prosecutors don’t care, because their jobs are based on convicting people, not on whether justice is served. Many in the public (probably most) don’t care, because they truly believe that if police charge someone, he’s probably guilty. Further, they believe that if a jury has convicted a person, he’s almost certainly guilty. And if a few innocent people go to prison along the way, well, that’s the price to be paid for “law and order.”
It would be hard to accuse a U.S. Founding Father of being “soft on crime,” but John Adams was more worried about protecting the innocent than punishing the guilty. He said:
“It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, ‘whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,’ and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.”
Casey Anthony was probably guilty of something. From what I know — and that’s not a lot — it seems that she’s cold, remorseless and dishonest. (The jury convicted her of lying to police.) But there’s no proof that she killed her daughter. To convict her of murder because we don’t like her — or because we simply have the gut feeling that she must have killed Caylee — isn’t justice. It’s forming a lynch mob.
A guilty woman might walk out of prison Wednesday, but many, many innocent men and women are sitting in U.S. prisons today. I’m far more outraged by their false imprisonment than by this one woman possibly getting away with a crime. Don’t let your emotional need for vengeance outweigh your eagerness to pursue justice for the innocent.
Note: After this story was written, Radley Balko posted a new story explaining the details of the plea agreement that allowed Cory Maye to go free.