This week, in a Florida court, Casey Anthony was acquitted of charges that she murdered her daughter Caylee. But in the court of public opinion, she was already guilty. Kendall Coffey, former US Attorney for Florida and author of Spinning the Law talks about how the media and the jury could have reached such starkly different conclusions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week a Friday jury cleared Casey Anthony on charges that she murdered her two-year-old daughter Caylee back in 2008. The public was stunned, the media were outraged.
SUSAN MOSS: We’ve been OJ’d. This is the worst thing to happen to Florida since the hanging chads. How did they miss the duct tape over this child’s mouth, this child’s nose? You don’t wear duct tape to go swimming. And it’s no…
BILL O’REILLY: When a two-year-old goes missing and the mother doesn't even call 911, you're telling me the mother never neglected the child and she's missing and doesn't call 911? That's neglect, Geraldo.
NANCY GRACE: Somewhere out there, the devil is dancing tonight.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the court of public opinion it seemed that Casey was found guilty long ago. But in a court of law, there just wasn't enough evidence to convict. Anthony's defense attorney Cheney Mason came out and blasted the media after the verdict for what he deemed three years of media assassination.
CHENEY MASON: Well, I hope that this is a lesson to those of you who have indulged in media assassination for three years, bias and prejudice, and incompetent talking heads saying what would be and how to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why did the jury's verdict diverge so sharply from the out of the public's and TV's talking heads? Kendall Coffey is a former U.S. attorney for Florida and author of Spinning the Law: Trying Cases in the Court of Public Opinion. And he’s also logged a lot of time as a TV talking head. [LAUGHS] Welcome to the show, Kendall.
KENDELL COFFEY: Thank you so much for having me. What a fascinating case.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What makes this so fascinating?
KENDELL COFFEY: Well, it's the most horrifying kind of crime, a mother killing her child. It's got the elements of CSI that are just enthralling to the American public right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like what?
KENDELL COFFEY: For example, DNA; was there DNA, wasn't there? What about air sample testing, when had that been done before. And, at the same time, Casey Anthony herself was utterly bewildering. She certainly didn't look like a killer, but she lied like a criminal. And 31 days of partying and lying and yet, no real motive to kill her child, were more than just intriguing. They were utterly puzzling. And I think part of what was difficult in reaching a verdict of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is the difficulty in figuring out Casey Anthony.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now HLN, the cable news channel that seems to have really made its bones on this story, has a correspondent named Jane Velez Mitchell, who told the website Media Hype that TV viewers, quote, “paid more attention than some of the jurors.” Based on the legal system and reasonable doubt, do you think the jury did its job?
KENDELL COFFEY: Despite whatever we're hearing and seeing and even thinking outside the courtroom, they see the evidence, they see all the disputed points and contentions much better than any of us who are simply watching it from a distance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fair enough, but why are the public and the talking heads so sure that the jury got it wrong?
KENDELL COFFEY: In the court of public opinion, there is no presumption of innocence. When we hear about charges being brought, what do we think? We think they probably did it; where there's smoke, there must be fire. So we're in a completely different zone than the jurors who get in there, and maybe some of them had some predispositions, because there was so much pretrial publicity, but nevertheless they swear an oath, and conscientious jurors to everything they can to follow that oath. And that means really holding the prosecution to its burden of proof and examining each piece of evidence. The jury saw every minute of the trial. We didn’t.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: TV pundits tended to portray the prosecutors as doing very well and the defense as bumbling, right? This was the narrative they had decided upon and didn't diverge much from?
KENDELL COFFEY: Commentators, including this one, have a tendency to pay too much attention to the lawyers. During sidebars or conferences that the jury never saw the judge was frequently admonishing and was routinely critical of defense counsel. So they weren't winning with the judge, but that's a completely different question from how were they doing with the jury. We score style points because the prosecution seemed more prepared.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you suggesting perhaps that in order to get better commentary on these trials, it would be better to have non experts in to evaluate how it’s going?
KENDELL COFFEY: Well, I think you would be really interesting to have human beings react.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As opposed to lawyers like yourself.
KENDELL COFFEY: As opposed to lawyers. [LAUGHS] I have my human components.
But, but I'm a lawyer and I – you know, that’s my life and that's how I, I react to things. And so, it bothered me that the defense seemed to be disobeying court orders, with respect to providing notification and evidence in advance to the prosecution. And maybe that affected some of my judgments. It didn’t bother the jury. They didn't see any part of that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, a lot of people have drawn comparisons between this trial and the O.J. Simpson case, in terms of the coverage, and also in terms of public engagement. But back then we didn't have Facebook and Twitter, enabling us to be constantly engaged with the trial. There's even an app on the iTunes store that allows users to watch a live stream of the trial, read court documents, stay updated with the case.
KENDELL COFFEY: The O.J. case, I think, took trial watching to a new planet. But this case took it to a galaxy for the reasons you've described.
One other difference with OJ is we are truly in a CSI age. And so much of his testimony was doing forensic evidences. And when juries today are watching that, there's gonna be terminology, there's going to be things before that they’ve seen on TV.
And in this case, seeing no DNA anywhere that could link the defendant to the alleged crime, that starts out with nothing more as a positive for the defense.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you’re saying in a pre-CSI age the jury might have found her guilty?
KENDELL COFFEY: We’ll never know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kendall, thank you very much.
KENDELL COFFEY: Thanks, Brooke, for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kendall Coffey is a former U.S. attorney for Florida and author of Spinning the Law: Trying Cases in the Court of Public Opinion.