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Kendall Coffey on the Casey Anthony verdict: The system worked.

July 6, 2011

Attorney Jose Baez with Casey Anthony in February, when things looked grim.

Like millions, I was stunned by the Casey Anthony acquittal — not because I was certain she killed her little girl, but because she had been so thoroughly convicted in the court of public opinion that a not-guilty verdict seemed unthinkable.

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Anyone struggling with yesterday’s outcome in the Anthony murder trial should consult Spinning the Law: Trying Cases in the Court of Public Opinion, an entertaining and informative book by Kendall Coffey, a U.S. Attorney-turned-high-profile Miami defense lawyer.

In this book Coffey gives  us a Machiavellian analysis of the legal system — in the sense that he describes American justice as it really is, rather than how we’d like it to be. The book certainly altered my notions of the system. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been thinking about the media’s role in the Anthony case at all.

I haven’t followed the case on TV or online. Indeed, all I know is what I could glean by scanning tabloid headlines in the supermarket check-out line, so I don’t have enough information to form a judgment as to whether Anthony suffocated her two-year-old daughter with duck tape.

But it was clear the headline writers had weighed Anthony in the balance and found her wanting. To them, she was monster who had killed little Caylee because the adorable child was crimping her style as a party girl. The drumbeat — led as I know now by that even-tempered legal scholar and commentator Nancy Grace — was so loud that it reached even my bookish ears.

So no wonder the not-guilty verdict incited such a nationwide flame up of anger and indignation.

“In the court of public opinion, there is no presumption of innocence and for that reason America believes that Casey Anthony got away with murder,” Coffey told me by email this morning.  “But we have to respect the jury which clearly believed in our system of justice , a system  that places the burden of proof on prosecutors and provides that it is their job to eliminate any reasonable doubt.”

Disclaimer: I not only read Spinning the Law, published by Prometheus Books last fall, I also helped Coffey prepare the final draft with some copy editing and other editorial assistance. Kendall paid me well for my services, and I have no further financial interest in the book.

But I can recommend it without hesitation because of the profound impact it had on my understanding of the way the law works, and especially the way the law and the media — which is to say lawyers and judges on one side, reporters and commentators on the other — influence one another.

For example, in seeking to explain the surprise acquittal, The New York Times story suggested that “the circumstantial nature of the prosecution’s case seemed to be insurmountable.” But as anyone who’s read Coffey’s book knows, circumstantial evidence sends defendants to jail every day.

Kendall Coffey

“Contrary to the popular conception, state and federal law treats circumstantial evidence as equal to direct or physical evidence,” Coffey writes in section about a 1998 Manhattan case in which two people were convicted of murdering an elderly socialite despite the absence of a body or any physical evidence linking them to the crime.

Coffey, a frequent guest on cable news shows, is a knowledgeable and good-humored guide to the history and intricacies of the American legal system. He traces “spin” all the way back to the trial of Socrates, and notes that public fascination with sensational trails didn’t start with O.J.

For example,  more reporters attended the Lindbergh kidnapping trail than covered World War II. Hard to fathom, I know, but true.

Coffey examines celebrated cases, from Scott Peterson to Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart and others, and he details the ways, good and bad, the O.J. Simpson trial changed the balance between the media and the law forever.

How then was defense attorney Jose Baez able to get his client off in court, when the court of public opinion had long since rendered its judgment? Simple, Coffey says. The state failed to meet its burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. And Baez may have been aide by the influence of unrealistic TV police dramas.

‘The state of decomposition of the remains was very advanced and the kind of clear DNA and other forensic  proof that people expect to see in today’s CSI age was missing or was debatable,” Coffey says. “As a result, there were a number of questions over how Caylee died,  giant questions over why her mother would kill the daughter she seemingly loved,  and the small questions as well as the larger ones clearly added up to a reasonable doubt in the mind of this jury.”

You may or may not finish Spinning the Law with increased respect for the American system of justice. Coffey clearly loves and reveres the system, but he doesn’t hesitate to cast a clear eye on its shortcomings and foibles:

“The best course is for everyone on all sides to understand as fully as possible not only the way things are supposed to work but also the way they really work,” he writes.

Spinning the Law goes a long way to providing, in a readable fashion, the beginnings of that understanding.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2011 12:22 pm

    The system worked. I knew when they could not conclude how she died, how could you possibly accuse some one of killing her. She may have done it for sure, but they did not prove without doubt.

  2. July 6, 2011 1:02 pm

    Thanks for the tip on the Coffey book. I’m looking for somethng like that! . The significance of this case — more than the verdict — is the dual roles, I believe , of the media and of society in general. Growling (Nancy) Grace, aside, this was the entertainment (?) of the spring and summer of “Eleven.” which says so much more about us as a society than does the verdict. Was this really easier on the palate than the budget and the debt ceiling.?.
    Attention must be paid – books will be written! .

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 6, 2011 1:41 pm


      Then this is the book for you, because that’s exactly what it’s about. But I caution you: Fascination with the Anthony case doesn’t say as much about contemporary society as it does human nature. People have been this way since… always, as you’ll see in Coffey’s book. For example, there was a similar frenzy in New York City in 1799, when a young man was accused of murdering his pregnant girlfriend by throwing her down a well. What may have been the first Dream Teach — Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, a future NY governor and a future Supreme Court justice — won an acquittal by (you’re going to love this) attacking the character and sanity of the poor dead woman. The accused, once he was freed, had to move to another part of the country. He couldn’t walk down the street in Manhattan without getting spat on…

  3. July 6, 2011 6:25 pm

    Interesting, Chauncey. We tend to forget that trials have always created circus atmospheres. Anyone see the recent movie “The Conspirator” about the trial of Mary Surratt, an alleged accomplice in the plot to assassinate Pres. Lincoln? Or does anyone remember — as I do — the mania and crazies that surrounded the Manson trial in the Sixties? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 7, 2011 12:46 am

      Yep, all the way back to the trial of Socrates, at least. Joan of Arc was condemned in a carnival show-trial, too, in addition to all the more recent ones. The Anthony case merely offered this year’s “trial of the century.”

  4. July 6, 2011 8:38 pm

    I remember OJ. Shocking, wrong-headed, depressing beyond belief. But that said, nothing about any acquittal shocks me anymore. More’s the pity.

  5. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    July 7, 2011 12:50 am

    Don’t forget, racial politics in a city where blacks felt actively oppressed by a rogue police department played a huge role in the OJ case. Like Coffey, though with less expertise, I tend to view any acquittal as a triumph, given how hard it is for any defendant, any lawyer or legal team, to defeat the might of the state. You’ll really find Coffey’s book an eye-opener. What other book by a defense attorney openly acknowledges that most criminal defense clients are guilty? His candor is disarming and informative.

  6. Candice Simmons permalink
    July 9, 2011 9:56 am

    Good column. As for public opinion, has anyone who condemned this woman from the get-to stopped to wonder if maybe she could be innocent? We used to burn witches too, you know.

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