News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Let's have a picnic and kill Casey Anthony

That Wednesday, October 29, 1845,  was clear and cool as a huge crowd of people gathered at the gallows on the lawn of the courthouse in Rock Island County, Illinois.  Three men were to be hanged that day.  On the Fourth of July that year, while his family was attending patriotic celebrations in town, men broke into the home of Col. George Davenport on the Rock Island in the middle of the Mississippi River looking for a fortune he was reputed to have hid there and murdered him.   The ones accused and convicted of the robbery and murder were led to the gallows for sentence to be carried out. 

Great occasion for a picnic
The people who gathered at the gallows  got up before dawn throughout the countryside, packed picnic baskets, and came to town for the occasion.  Some had reason to feel that the hanging signaled the end of a scourge that had held the countryside in terror.   The men to be hanged were identified as members of the Banditti of the Prairie, a loosely associated group of outlaws who roamed the region robbing, burglarizing, and murdering, and exerting a great deal of control in some northwestern Illinois counties.    Others came out of a great human tradition that regards public killings as great entertainment, a source of pleasure at seeing other humans die in a suffering end.  As in the case of this hanging, they could not care less about whether the hangees were actually guilty of the crimes with which they were charged.  The men were brothers  John and Aaron Long and Granville Young.  There is some doubt that Granville Young was part of robbery and death of George Davenport.  It didn't matter.  People wanted the spectacle of revenge against somebody, anybody, and the luxurious thrill of feeling that they were watching the struggling demise of someone over whom they could feel power and superiority.

As time neared for the hanging, some people in the crowd saw clouds of dust raised by galloping horses on the horizon.  They shouted that the Banditti of the Prairie were charging to rescue their cohorts, and the crowed panicked.  However, when it found out that the riders of mounts and wagons were just folks like them whipping their horses into gallops to make sure they wouldn't miss the hanging, the crowd settled down and prepared for the day's entertainment.

It was a real good hanging.  When the trap doors were sprung, one of the men slipped through the noose.  The executioners made him mount the platform again, put another noose around his neck, and released the trap door.  This time they grabbed his dangling feet and pulled down on them to make sure he was dead. 

Great show.

And now we have Casey Anthony and her acquittal of the murder of her child. The aftermath of this trial resulted in a tide of rage sweeping through people who felt that their appetite for revenge and punishment had been cheated.  

I make no conjecture about Casey Anthony's guilt or innocence.  I do offer observations on the trial.   I was among a small group of journalists who said that O.J. Simpson stood a good chance of being acquitted.  These journalists were from a group who had vast experience in covering trials in local areas.  They were not the grand-standing talking heads of television or the authoritative poseurs of the Internet.   They were the reporters who had covered courthouses and court proceedings every work day. 

People reacted with great anger and indignation over the possibility of O.J. being acquitted, were incensed at those who suggested he could be, but they did not follow the reasoning.  The experienced and knowledgeable observers based their view of possibility on a trial maneuver that was successful.  O.J.'s lawyers succeeded in getting a change of venue from a court district composed of white upper class people to a district that contained many black and Latino people.  People, including the whites, who lived in that district were well acquainted with tactics of police intimidation, including the planting of evidence if necessary.  If during the trial, the question of planting evidence was raised, jurors drawn from this district would not have doubts about it being a strong possibility.  Defense lawyer Johnny Cochran pounded on this possibility in his reference to the glove brought into evidence that linked O.J. to the crime:  "If it doesn't fit, acquit," Cochran frequently intoned.  The glove didn't fit OJ.'s hand. Reasonable doubt had been introduced, and it won the case.

I had not paid much attention to the Casey Anthony case until some of the same people who commented in an e-mail group on the Simpson case began to analyze the trial proceedings.  All of the evidence was circumstantial.  None of it made a direct link of Casey to the death of her daughter.  The word circulating on that e-mail forum was that the prosecution had a very weak case.  Every piece of evidence had large areas of reasonable doubt.  The comments in the e-mail forum kept pointing out the trouble that conscientious jurors would have with the evidence.  

Another point frequently made was that the media had gone into a frenzy over the Casey Anthony case in its furor to attract viewers, listeners, and readers. The people who so long pined for Casey's conviction, and the death penalty the charge could carry, were responding more to those on cable television who agitated against her than to any critical examination of the evidence.  Commenters on the Internet took up the cause by the millions, and inflated the claims made on cable television.  Jurors are carefully coached not to make decisions on accusations.  They have to look at the evidence and find for the defendant where there is any reasonable doubt.

But a significant portion of people were enraged when the jury acquitted Casey Anthony of murder.   They professed wracking grief over the death of her toddler daughter, but they clamored for some kind of revenge on Casey.  They took to the streets and raged. They raged against a court system that did not follow their wishes.  The U.S. Senate Minority Leader said it showed the terrible faults of our courts and showed why terrorists should never be tried in our civil courts.  

The good folks were pissed because they felt the court cheated them out of a good hanging.  Or its equivalent in our times.  

In past times, both in America and other parts of the world,  executions were festive.  People gathered in hordes to watch somebody die,  and they hoped it would be a suffering and grotesque death.  That's why the courthouse square was so jam packed in Rock Island on that day in October 1845.  A triple-header.  Triple-necker, to be more precise?

It is the same impulse that boils up from the reptilian cortex that drives lynch mobs.  Those people taking to the streets in a rage over Casey Anthony's acquittal were a lynch mob.     

The first issue here is that members of the jury did not feel good about the verdict, but the prosecution did not come up with convincing evidence for a conviction.  But the second issue is that those people out there angrily demanding some kind of vengeance on Casey Anthony did not examine the evidence or have any interest in doing so.  They were reacting to that new-media inflamed desire to see someone punished.  Their interest in punishing Casey Anthony belief any humane motives they claimed for her dead little daughter.

The Casey Anthony trial and its aftermath has deep implications for the political attitudes gripping many in the United States.  A significant number of people are far more interested in venting some innate need to hate and harm other people than they are in solving the social and political problems that face America.  

The fact is that our justice system in her case was applied and produced a result that it was designed to do.   It found the evidence against to be insufficient from which to draw a supportable conclusion of guilt.   Millions of people demanded her conviction and punishment in spite of the facts.   Vengeance and justice are not the same things.  Justice is a matter of holding someone accountable for their crimes and providing some compensation for those who are harmed.  Vengeance is a matter of inflicting punishment on someone out of rage and resentment.  

When justice is compromised, liberty and equality are superfluous notions.

The lynch mobs are with us.   Will they rule us?


Nenaj1 said...

You probably think she is attractive in some way. Many people have been put away forever for circumstantial evidence. She was the last person with her daughter. Partied for 31 days while her daughter is supposedly missing. Slept around like a dirty slut........while her daughter was missing. That is enough proof for me meaning she is guilty. if my daughter were missing and killed. I would seriously take my own life would not be able to live with it. Then she claimed her daughter accidentally drowned. So why throw her in a swamp with duct tape on her face? Only an idiot would believe she is innocent.

JOSE RUIZ said...

You have to be seriously demented to say that the judicial system worked the way it was supposed to. Maybe we should prosecute you for your ignorance. Casey Anthony got away with murder and the evidence was clear that she had commited the crime. The jury will have to live with their own failure to society, and it is my belief that the "people" will not forget. They (the jury members) will be the target of hate for allowing someone like Casy to get away with murdering another human being. I can't believe that the jury did not have what it takes to make a decision based on the facts of the case - 31 daays of party! You are probably just another unethical attorney, just like Jose Baez that likes to make a mockery of our judicial sytem of laws. The intent of defending a criminal's right was not to allow someone off because of a technicality or so that you can lie to a jury hoping that something will stick. The intention was to afford the accused of a proper representation in accordance with the law. This is a failure of the US legal system, and the reason why politicians are skeptical about using our courts to convict terrorists in foreign soil.

Jose Ruiz

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States