Casey Anthony Verdict Doesn’t Require New Laws

Published July 27, 2011

So-called “Caylee’s Laws” are already being introduced in dozens of states across America, and a petition for a federal version has gone viral on the Internet. All this is in response to the anger with which observers reacted to the “not guilty” verdicts on the murder counts in the Casey Anthony trial.

“That anger is understandable,” said Radley Balko, a senior writer for Huffington Post. “But anger is a bad reason to make public policy.”

Balko is right. Casey Anthony was acquitted July 5 on charges that she murdered her two-year-old daughter Caylee in 2008. She would have faced the death penalty if convicted. She also was acquitted on aggravated child abuse and manslaughter charges. She was convicted only on charges of lying to law enforcement officers.

Caylee had not been seen since June 2008, but she was not reported missing until a month later, by her grandmother. Her body was not found until December 2008, when it was too badly decomposed for a cause of death to be determined. As early as August of that year, however, several tipsters had repeatedly urged police to search for her body where it was eventually found, and one of them led police to it in December.

At trial, prosecutors argued Casey Anthony murdered her daughter. The defense contended Caylee had accidentally drowned.

The proposed new state “Caylee’s Laws” would make it a felony for parents to fail to report a missing child to police within 24 hours of the child’s disappearance and a felony to fail to report the death of a child within an hour of its occurrence. As of July 14, almost 1.2 million Americans had signed a petition at for a federal “Caylee’s Law.”

Casey can’t be convicted under such laws because retroactive criminal prosecutions are unconstitutional. But supporters of “Caylee’s Laws” argue they would prevent other, similar cases.

Fortunately, there are no other, similar cases. Or if there are, no one is pointing to them. They will simply lay another pointless burden on law-abiding people, including those who fail to file the required report for a child who later returns home safely.

The public’s frustration is understandable, but the prosecution’s case was not enough to justify a conviction. As one juror noted, “We didn’t know how she died, we didn’t know when she died. Technically, we didn’t even know where she died. You couldn’t say who did it.”

Anthony was convicted in the media, though. TV pundits condemned her as “a slut, a nut and, most importantly, a murderer,” as law professor Jonathan Turley said. But as the juror noted, there just wasn’t any direct evidence to show that Anthony killed her child and no fingerprints or DNA evidence linking her to the death. The jury did the right thing in finding her not guilty of murder, particularly in a death-penalty case.

The frustration arises, legal commentators note, because the public doesn’t understand the nature of the judicial process. Trials don’t solve mysteries; they determine whether the defendant has been proven guilty of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

According to Ohio State University law professor Doug Berman, “It’s not just that the jury decision came out differently than we had hoped, it’s that the jury decision wasn’t a statement of her innocence. It was a statement of ‘We can’t figure out what happened.’ And in some sense, that’s even more frustrating than if the jury said, ‘We don’t think she did it.’ ”

Balko adds, “In a country of 308 million people, bad things are going to happen. We already have laws against murder, child abuse and child neglect. When you pass laws that make it easier to imprison people in cases where the state doesn’t have enough evidence to prove the crime everyone knows they’re actually prosecuting, you undermine the integrity of the justice system.”

The anger in the Casey Anthony case is understandable, but we shouldn’t respond by writing laws designed to trap people for crimes for which there isn’t sufficient evidence to convict them — or for no crimes at all.

Maureen Martin ([email protected]) is senior fellow for legal affairs at The Heartland Institute.