Follow the Evidence

Hi, kids–

Well, there’s been a major freak-out over the Casey Anthony verdict (as I knew there would be), but I’m also hearing some really hateful and ignorant things being tossed around about the case and the jurors. Just a little reminder about manners, friends. Sure, disagree with someone. And sure, disagree strongly. But threats? Really? Behaving like that doesn’t make your case hold up that well, either. Just a friendly tip from the etiquette gallery.

That said, I write a character who is an Albuquerque homicide detective named Chris Gutierrez, and in her first book, State of Denial, she has to solve a murder. A suspect presents early, but Chris — like any good detective knows — must prove the case. That is, she must find the evidence that clearly demonstrates a link (hopefully, more than one link) from the dead person to the suspect, and between what happened to the dead person to the suspect. She has her suspicions, but she also knows what happens in court is contingent on the quality of the evidence she collects and the procedures she employed to collect it. There must be little, if any doubt, that the evidence clearly links a suspect to the victim. As a writer of mysteries and police procedurals, I have to get this stuff as accurate as I can. I’m trying to write a convincing detective who does a good job. In order to do that, I have to educate myself about police procedure and criminalistics.

I want to be very clear about something here. I noticed that many of the “polls” circulating on the Interwebs ask the following question: “Do you believe Casey Anthony is guilty?” I think that’s the wrong question to ask about this case. It is my belief that clearly, something happened in the Anthony household (which has been called “dysfunctional” in the trial, with accusations that Ms. Anthony was abused by her father) that led to the death of Caylee Anthony. The question remains as to what specifically that was. The question, I think, that should be asked is whether you think there was enough concrete evidence to convict Ms. Anthony on a charge of 1st degree murder.

To prove 1st degree murder, you have to prove that a suspect planned out a murder with malice ahead of time, and then acted out that plan. I don’t think the prosecution had that concrete evidence, and the jury had to assess whether or not the evidence the prosecution provided was strong enough to lead them to conclude that Ms. Anthony plotted her daughter’s murder, carried it out, then disposed of her body.

So let’s chat about this a bit more, yes?

Perhaps first, read this blog by police guy Lee Lofland. He’ll lay it out for you, and demonstrate, too, how behavior in a courtroom can sway a jury. I strongly recommend you read that blog post, with which I concur.

In the horrible and tragic story of Caylee Anthony, the young child whose remains were found in a wooded area near her grandparents’ Florida home, a number of problematic issues presented themselves, and I had a feeling that these issues — no matter how strong the circumstantial evidence was — would present more issues when it came time to definitively convict Casey Anthony of 1st degree murder. The biggest issues, I thought, were:

1. No clear cause of death could be determined from the child’s badly decomposed remains. What that means is that yes, something terrible happened to this child because she’s dead and her body was found in the woods. However, forensic and criminalistic examination and analysis could not determine how the child died. That’s called “cause of death.” If you cannot determine how someone died (e.g. asphyxiation caused by strangling), you thus cannot reasonably accuse someone of being responsible for bringing about that death because nothing links any particular person to the body or to what happened to the person. Caylee Anthony died, yes. But we have no idea what specifically killed her. It could have been murder, yes. But it could also have been an accident in which all parties attempted to cover up her death for whatever reasons they had.

2. No eyewitness was able to definitively link Casey Anthony to the body of her daughter or to the death of her daughter. Granted, eyewitness accounts can be unreliable, but what’s interesting here is that no witnesses could definitively link the mother to the daughter’s body or disappearance.

3. The evidence suggesting that Caylee Anthony’s body was possibly transported in a car was circumstantial, because forensic analysis was not able to determine precisely who it might have been (that’s my reading of the case), and no forensic analysis linked Casey Anthony either to the trunk of that car, to the smell of decomposition in that car, or to the chloroform that surfaced in the trial.

4. Changing stories on the witness stand further weakened the prosecution’s case, and further weakened any links a witness could have made between Ms. Anthony and her daughter’s body.

5. Shoddy investigative work when the child’s body was found also may have created problems. The first-responding deputy failed to respond right away to the discovery of a skull in the woods.

In a high-profile case like this, of course theories are going to abound. That’s what police work and legal work is all about. But it’s not EVIDENCE. Evidence is composed of material objects (no matter how small) that can strongly link people to bodies and scenes of crimes. It’s also immaterial things like witness testimony that has to be really solid. And the evidence has to be handled in accordance with specific rules of police and department procedure, lest it be “contaminated.” The police may have their suspicions, and they may even have really good gut instincts, but if the evidence is not providing a strong enough link between a death and a suspect, then you cannot prove that there’s a relationship between the two, and that’ll cost you if the case goes to court.

Reports about Ms. Anthony’s behavior following the disappearance of her daughter also fueled speculation. Ms. Anthony apparently went into some kind of “party mode,” according to witnesses, and exhibited little, if any emotion about her daughter’s disappearance and in fact, waited a month to report it. That certainly raises questions, as it should. But it doesn’t tell us whether Ms. Anthony murdered her daughter or covered up the fact that her daughter had died accidentally OR was covering for someone else in the family who may have been responsible for her daughter’s death. It seems to indicate that statements about the Anthony family’s dysfunction and claims that Ms. Anthony herself was abused by her father could be true, which also helps explain her alleged behavior in the wake of her daughter’s disappearance. From following this case to the extent that I have, it seems that Ms. Anthony clearly has some issues which exhibit themselves as pathological lying and perhaps inappropriate behavior. She also has a conviction for check fraud, but check fraud doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to commit murder next.

So, as a writer, cases like this interest me because it’s an example of how the legal system works in this country, and how important it is that you have strong evidence to prove your case and to make your characters convincing. It’s one thing to believe that someone killed someone else, but it’s a whole other ballgame definitively proving it. That’s what the jury did here. They may all have believed while they sat on that jury that yes, Ms. Anthony is somehow responsible for the death of her daughter. But the evidence the prosecution presented them was not strong enough for them to convict her of 1st degree murder, and they thus could not, in good conscience, do so. Had the prosecution had stronger evidence, the results of that verdict may well have been different.

Anyway, do read that blog by Lofland. It might give you even more perspective.

Happy reading, happy writing!

One thought on “Follow the Evidence

  1. Pingback: Yes, but what’s the evidence? « Women and Words

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