In a continuing series of posts, Lyle Denniston provides responses based on the Constitution and its history to public statements about the meaning of the Constitution and what duties it imposes or rights its protects. Today’s topic: factual guilt vs. legal innocence.
The constitutional claim:
“There is no way that this is a verdict that speaks the truth.”
– CNN cable TV network host Nancy Grace, a former prosecutor, on July 5, the day the verdict was delivered in the Casey Anthony trial.
The constitutional response:
The Constitution’s Sixth Amendment does not promise, and does not require, a perfect trial in any criminal case. The Supreme Court has said that repeatedly. The Amendment does guarantee that the trial will be fair – especially through the requirement of a “public trial, by an impartial jury.” That includes the concept that guilt must be proven by prosecutors “beyond a reasonable doubt” – the most demanding standard. The guarantee is a critical factor in America’s pursuit of justice: Juries must reach a just verdict that can stand as constitutionally fair.
A verdict — from the Latin for “ver-dict,” or “truth speaking” — can reflect factual guilt or legal guilt (or, the reverse, factual innocence or legal innocence). The two are not the same, and conflict between them can become total in almost any case. But it is a very real prospect in high-drama trials that capture national attention.
Pronouncing factual guilt is the stock-in-trade of tabloid journalists at their worst. A classic example was the 1995 murder trial in California of O.J. Simpson. By the time the verdict of legal innocence was reached by the jury, Simpson already had been “convicted” in the “court” of tabloid-driven public opinion. As that case illustrated well, factual guilt exists in the perception – more easily reached outside a courthouse than it often is in a jury room — that the accused individual did do the crime, period.
Pronouncing legal guilt or innocence is a phenomenon that, at its best, is found in the work of jurors under a solemn oath to be fair and impartial, as the Sixth Amendment mandates – a goal that, perhaps remarkably, is achieved by American juries far more often than not. And, when there is a failure of prosecutors to meet the standard of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the verdict is necessarily legal innocence. That is what Simpson’s jury concluded in 1995, and what Casey Anthony’s jury concluded on Tuesday.
Both verdicts illustrate the conflict that arises when the judgment made from a perception of the facts outside the courthouse is one of factual guilt, but the judgment made by real jurors in an actual trial is legal innocence.
In the Anthony case, prosecutors and sizeable segments of the media had portrayed the accused as a self-indulgent party girl who would kill to end the distractions of motherhood.
But when the actual legal verdict came down, she was found not guilty of murder, aggravated manslaughter, and aggravated child abuse, for which she faced the death penalty. She was found guilty of four misdemeanors for lying to police during the investigation.
The jury, clearly, had drawn two, independent legal judgments: The prosecution’s evidence, they concluded, failed on the most serious charges, but had carried the day on the lying counts. And behind those two judgments, were two seemingly independent moral assessments: Anthony was not to blame, under the law, for her child’s death, but she definitely was responsible for trying to frustrate the police investigation.
The constitutional moral of the story: The Anthony case illustrated anew that, between judgments about the facts and conclusions about the limits of proof, the Constitution is more focused on the latter than the former.
Lyle Denniston is the National Constitution Center’s Adviser on Constitutional Literacy. He has reported on the Supreme Court for 53 years, currently covering it for SCOTUSblog, an online clearing house of information about the Supreme Court’s work.