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