Seat Twelve People in a Room, and What Do We Get? A Verdict You Might Not Like.

Last week before the Casey Anthony verdict, I sat in a room at George Washington University and listened to a group of law students argue a case.   Since I’m friends with one of the law professors, I’ve done this before, perhaps half a dozen times. 

Any given night during moot court sessions, there might be six trials in session, all trying exactly the same case.  It’s quite an achievement to find enough volunteers to make the process work, so our jury had only four members.

I’ve never been on a real jury, although I’ve been on voter rolls since 1970.  I’m envious of my friend, the author Karen Young who served an entire year on a state grand jury and has stories to tell about it.  I joke about my FBI file.  Have they inadvertently mixed me up with another Emilie?  Do I have a ringer on a watchlist?  I did protest in front of my university administration building as a sophomore.  Hmmm. . .

Without real experience, I’ve been delighted to take part in moot court.  Some of the law students are naturals, some need work, some of the defendants and witnesses should consider theater as a major.  Last week was the first time, however, that we tried a case of sexual assault.

In previous cases I’ve been interested in my own reaction.  While I’m usually a person who tries to weigh both sides of any issue, I really don’t want to hear “why” somebody might have committed a crime or what will happen if he’s thrown under the calaboose.  I want the facts, ma’am.  Did he or didn’t she?  Show me the proof, and I’ll convict without worrying about the wife who will have to fend for herself or the library where our suspect volunteers every Wednesday.  But if there’s reasonable doubt?  Watch out.  If a prosecutor can’t make a case, then I can’t say “guilty,” no matter how likely it is that the defendant did indeed try to run down his mother-in-law after she served him greasy pork chops.

This had been true until the case was sexual assault. 

The cases the GW law students try are based on real events, with many details altered and rewritten.  By the time we hear them, they’re almost entirely fiction.  In this one, a young pregnant waitress walks home late at night after getting off work early because she’s not feeling well.  Halfway there, she’s accosted by a customer she just served–and doesn’t remember–escorted into his car at knife point and eventually raped.  At night’s end she’s deposited back where the nightmare began and allowed to finish her walk home.

I wanted the defendant to fry.  Our victim was lovely, young, sweet as her diner’s apple pie.  Her husband was madly in love, poor but hardworking.  Wow.  Does a happily married woman expecting her first child and experiencing morning sickeness (at midnight) really offer herself to a stranger she meets in the diner, then beat herself up so she can use rape as an excuse because she’s late coming home?  Did it matter to me that the police detective did not test the DNA from the rape kit?  Not when both of them agreed the sex had happened.  This was not, remember, an episode of CSI.

How often is a sexual assault witnessed by credible people who can testify to what they’ve seen?  Most of these cases have to be, by nature, circumstantial.  So at what point must we rely on indirect evidence and convict a rapist or a mother who murders a child?  At what point are our doubts reasonable and at what point absurd?

Our jury of four hung.  By the end of our deliberations three of us agreed that the defendant was guilty.  The fourth was certain from the moment we put our heads together, that he was not.  She thought the investigation should have gone deeper, even though most of the facts were not in dispute.

In fairness to our hold-out, every other jury that night brought in a verdict of not guilty.

I thought about that mock trial when I learned yesterday that Casey Anthony will go free.  I thought about my own reaction and sympathy for the moot court victim.  About the fact that only rarely does a prosecutor have a credible witness who can point a finger and say “I was there and I saw her do it.”  I thought about how much rides on the supposed sincerity of the defendant or accuser, the quality of the lawyers and prosecutors.  The good ones win their cases, even if the cases have holes.

Our justice system isn’t always fair.  Poor defendants are sometimes assigned great public defenders, and sometimes they’re assigned recently graduated law students who never won in moot court, either.  High profile cases attract fabulously inventive lawyers, who frequently win cases that looked bullet proof because they coin catchy slogans or artfully muddy the waters.   Jury pools who watch too much television can’t understand that underfunded police departments must pick and choose what and whom to pursue and spend taxpayer money wisely.

Our justice system isn’t always fair.  It is, however, pretty darned amazing.  Casey Anthony will go free because twelve of her peers looked at all the evidence, perhaps thought she is guilty as sin, and still voted not guilty.  Because not guilty was, in their minds, the only legitimate choice.  For them the case wasn’t made.  Reasonable doubt existed.  And in the background, the death penalty loomed.  We may not agree, but in this country?  Thank God we’re allowed that privilege.


  1. Wanda on July 7, 2011 at 9:59 am

    You make some very good points in this post. I personally am angrybthat she is getting away with murder, but I was not on the jury and did not hear all the evidence. What I saw and heard on the news said GUILTY! But I know the news does not report every detail, only those that get our attention and get us riled up. I do know she has to live with what she did and she did not appear remorseful at all.

    • Emilie Richards on July 7, 2011 at 10:13 am

      I think the whole country is angry. A juror said today that they were physically sick to their stomachs at having to come in with the verdict they did. I don’t think a one of them said “not guilty” because they believed her or felt sorry for her. I think they probably honestly didn’t believe the case was made beyond a reasonable doubt. And that’s what the judge reminds them they must believe in his instructions.

  2. Lynn Ross on July 7, 2011 at 10:32 am

    Excellent, Emilie! Excellent! My feelings exactly! As to whether or not Casey Anthony is guilty of murder, I have no opinion. I would not be a good juror, but I do want justice in life. However, I do feel beyond a doubt that we all pay, and in the current lifetime, for what we do be it good or evil. Whether Casey Anthony is guilty of murder or gross negligence, Casey Anthony will never “go free.”

  3. Linda P. on July 7, 2011 at 11:10 am

    I was on a jury once, and was the chairperson – thankfully it was an insurance case.
    Your post was excellent and kudos for you sitting on a mock jury to help the students.
    I think we are all disappointed the state had no more evidence than they did – a person just doesn’t cover up the disappearance of a baby for no reason. SHE should have been the one to report the absence of the baby, not her mother.
    As far as the verdict, we heard an entirely different case than the jury did. They were not present for the all of the testimony or arguments that we saw on TV. I think they came to the only conclusion they could for what they were given. Sad, sad, a precious child was lost this way – I would have taken her in a heartbeat, if Mommy Dearest wanted to party hearty!

  4. Patricia Kay on July 7, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Hi, Emilie,
    I’ve sat on four juries, was chairperson twice, both for criminal trials. I agree with you. Emotionally, I’m sick about Casey going free. Realistically, I can see, from what I’ve read, that there had to be reasonable doubt. I feel sorry for that jury. It would have been very hard not to vote guilty, simply because what happened to poor little Caylee was so heartbreaking, and her mother is so completely unlikable.

    As to why you’ve never been picked for a jury, it’s their loss. You seem to me to be the ideal jurist! 🙂

    • Emilie Richards on July 7, 2011 at 12:44 pm

      What a nice thing to say. I ought to add that the moot court juries are much more fun because I don’t have to worry I sent someone to prison or freed a murderer. I just have to tell the students how they did.

  5. Kay Myhrman-Toso on July 7, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    Excellent points about the limits of our judicial system. This case has stirred the nation’s collective emotion, frustration, & outrage. As one who spent many years trying to help at-risk families, I couldn’t help but sigh very deeply over this case. A clergy friend shared another blog that looked at this tragedy through the collective responsibiltiy we all share. The author writes, “When an at-risk child joins the human family, that is everyone’s baby.” Amen…

    • Emilie Richards on July 7, 2011 at 6:13 pm

      Amen is right, except that our system of laws make parental “rights” such a priority that sometimes parenting a child is more like ownership. And anyone who challenges the “owners” has almost no leg to stand on until the abuse is documentable. Yet do we want a system where govt. can tell us exactly what to do and how to do it with our kids? Answers are complicated, aren’t they?

  6. Melissa on July 13, 2011 at 3:17 am

    I live in the Orlando area about 20 minutes from where this “mess” started three years ago. I saw the posters of that missing baby, attended vigils and watched every single minute on television. The media here convicted Casey Anthony before she got into that courtroom. I was shocked when the prosecution couldn’t provide any more substantial evidence than what they did after all of the media hype here. Is she innocent? Probably not but the prosecution couldn’t prove it based on the evidence they had to work with. Yes, our judicial system has limits and I wish the people who are threatening these poor jurors would understand that so they can go home to loved ones without fear.

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