Something terrible happened to 2-year-old Caylee Anthony, but a jury has decided it wasn’t due to murder by the girl’s mother, Casey Anthony. That verdict has caused an outcry among people with way too much time on their hands who have been following the case and salivating at the prospect of the execution of a 25-year-old woman described as being more interested in partying than parenting. Perhaps Casey Anthony did, as legions of angry Internet posters have categorically judged, "get away with murder;" an alternate juror interviewed on the Today show said that the verdict was due to the fact that prosecutors had not proven her guilt without reasonable doubt.
If there was a miscarriage of justice—or Justice For Caylee, as the TV lawyers called it—there was, at least, some encouraging news for a democracy that has increasingly been invaded by the values and goals of the entertainment industry. Mob justice would have dictated a guilty verdict (and an alarming number of people have posted—anonymously, as cowards tend to do—veiled and not-so-veiled threats against the acquitted Anthony). A guilty verdict also would have satisfied the mentality of those used to television crime-and-prosecution dramas, where the bad mother is made to pay, perhaps with her life, for her crimes, and the innocent little girl is given some justice. But the fundamentals of our criminal justice system dictate that the case be evaluated on the facts, and not the emotions of an angry mob whose members were not in the courtroom every day or bound by rules of evidence. The failure of the prosecution goes to the heart of what is so sad about the child’s death: No one has been able to say for sure exactly what happened to her. And while it is good drama to watch the conviction of a woman—particularly a woman portrayed as immature and insufficiently devoted to her little girl—it is not justice.
Technology and a strong sense of the power of the individual have given many Americans the impression that they know better than the people charged with making policy or legal decisions. Protesters chant on the steps of the Supreme Court, demanding a particular decision. Referenda-happy states allow voters, who are not burdened with weighing the impact of isolated fiscal laws or of considering the rights of a minority group, the authority to ban increases in property taxes or gay marriage. Members of Congress charged with assessing the healthcare overhaul law got death threats from angry Americans.
Dissent is healthy; protests and civil lobbying are essential to democracy. But our system relies on the assignment of specific individuals, be they elected officials, appointed judges, or jurors, to examine an issue thoroughly and make a judgment based on reason and not emotion. The jurors in the Anthony case did their job. Perhaps justice was not ultimately served in the individual case. But at least the mob lost.