Today, after three long years, and an acquittal on the most serious charges leveled against her, Casey Anthony is free. In a free country, a person is innocent until proven guilty. We cherish that right, yet we don’t much seem to like it when prosecutors fail to make their proof. By “we” I include those of us who cover these cases for a living.
I became television journalist, during the OJ Simpson trial, in an effort to recalibrate the coverage of criminal cases, defendants and the lawyers who represent them. As a woman of color, I am particularly troubled by the exploitive coverage of African Americans, Latinos and women caught up in the criminal justice system, and have worked for over a decade to affect a correction.
When I was a kid, my favorite movie was To Kill a Mockingbird and I grew up watching reruns of Perry Mason, media portrayals that celebrated the important work that criminal defense attorneys do. In recent years, I had become hopeful that the pendulum of pro-prosecution bias in media was beginning to swing back, from “Law and Order,” to center.
With the coverage of Casey’s case, however, my hopes have been dashed. I have been dismayed to see my colleagues, many of them lawyers who certainly know better, prosecute this case in the media, without full respect for the system, the evidence or the purview of the jury. The grossly exploitative nature of the coverage, in the name of journalism, has been nothing short of shameful.
There have been a few analysts – most of them criminal defense attorneys - who have tried to raise the public consciousness of the detriment not only to Casey Anthony’s case, but to our larger legal system and to all our of constitutional rights. There have been some reporters who have labored to cover the case objectively. But the steady drumbeat, day after day and night after night has been raucous, reckless and relentless, motivated, in my professional opinion, not by a search for the truth, not by a desire to serve justice, not by a desire to educate the public about the legal system, but by the hunger for ratings. The public may not realize this; but anyone inside the business of broadcast journalism does.
While I continue to have great respect for many of my colleagues, too many who claim privately to share my view remained publicly silent while their news organizations participated in the daily crucifixion of Casey Anthony. Guilty or not, this young woman was entitled to a presumption of innocence. In the end, she received a fair trial, thanks to the firm hand of the judge, the fierce advocacy of her defense team, the courage of the jury, among many other factors.
Since the verdict, however, we have not been chastened. Instead, in response to comments made by defense attorney Cheney Mason, on the heels of the verdict, we have come back swinging, fiercely defending the media against Mason’s thoughtful criticisms. Perhaps we should, for one moment, stop talking and reflect.
I, for one, am so disturbed by what has occurred that I propose removal of cameras from courtrooms in all criminal cases, where the camera threatens to undermine the sixth amendment right to a fair trial. The right to a public trial belongs to the defendant alone. It is time for the circus to pack up and go home.
Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues. You can follow her on twitter.