Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: The “CSI Effect” on Justice

Posted on November 27, 2012


Overlooked evidence in the Casey Anthony case: would it have made a difference?

I have to admit, when the verdict came in the Casey Anthony trial and she was “not guilty,” I was pretty surprised.  There was a time that the evidence presented in this case would have led to a resounding conviction of guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  But it was a dry-bones case, the body exposed to the elements for five months; fingerprints, perpetrator DNA, footprints and a lot of other crime-scene evidence was badly deteriorated or wiped out, and these days, motive, means and opportunity just don’t cut it with juries.  The press discussed afterward whether “the CSI effect” may have led to unreasonable expectations about what forensic science can and cannot do, and what constitutes reasonable doubt.  Experts called it a victory for reasonable doubt under the law; the jurors were “sick” over the verdict, but felt that they did not have the evidence to convict.

The defense focused mainly on throwing red herrings all over in an effort to plant doubt (including sensational claims that Ms. Anthony’s father or brother was little Caylee’s real father – which paternity testing disproved), rather than mounting a fact-based defense.  Defense attorney Jose Baez told the jury that the evidence could not be trusted, that reasonable doubt was “throughout the case, it is everywhere.”  That might fly for individual bits of evidence, but when one piece mounts atop another and it all paints a pretty consistent story – well, personally, I think one can reach a point where doubt is just not reasonable, even in the absence of fingerprints or DNA.

The failure to report the kidnapping / death / absence of her child until her parents  cornered her; the crazy lies to police; the changing story every time she was caught in a lie; the hair evidence, presence of chloroform, and scent of human decomposition in the trunk of the car; the partying just days after her child went missing – any one or two of these things would not make the case, but add it all together and  it gets pretty overwhelming.  What are the odds that the death of a child whose body was discovered in garbage bags with duct tape on its face was not foul play?  What are the odds that hair similar to Caylee’s, which forensics showed came from a dead body, just happened to turn up in the car trunk?  What are the odds that chloroform would be detected in the car trunk with that hair?  And the odds that on top of that, the family computer was used to search for information on “chloroform”?

And now, as WKMG Local 6 reports – it turns out that only a fraction of the Anthony family’s computer activity was noted by investigators, who missed another internet search for “foolproof suffocation” on the very day that Caylee died (and what are the odds of that?):

“We were waiting for the state to bring it up,” defense attorney Jose Baez told Local 6. “And when they didn’t, we were kind of shocked.”  Baez first revealed the evidence in his book, “Presumed Guilty,” but blamed Anthony’s father, George Anthony, for the computer activity. Baez suggested George Anthony was considering suicide after Caylee accidentally drowned in the family swimming pool.

But a Local 6 investigation has uncovered evidence indicating it was most likely Casey doing the search….

Consider what they appear to show happening online the afternoon of Monday, June 16, 2008, the day Caylee died:

  • At 2:49 p.m., after George Anthony said he had left for work and while Casey Anthony’s cellphone is pinging a tower nearest the home, the Anthony family’s desktop computer is activated by someone using a password-protected account Casey Anthony used;
  • At 2:51 p.m., on a browser primarily Casey Anthony used, a Google search for the term “fool-proof suffocation,” misspelling the last word as “suffication”;
  • Five seconds later, the user clicks on an article that criticizes pro-suicide websites that include advice on “foolproof” ways to die. “Poison yourself and then follow it up with suffocation” by placing “a plastic bag over the head,” the writer quotes others as advising;
  • At 2:52 p.m., the browser records activity on MySpace, a website Casey Anthony used frequently and George Anthony did not.

“I really believed that (prosecutors) were going to sandbag us with it,” said Baez.

After all, poison, suffocation and plastic bags were exactly what the state claimed Casey Anthony used to murder Caylee and dispose of her body; poisoning her with chloroform, suffocating her with duct tape, then placing her body in two plastic bags.

Is this just a matter of 20/20 hindsight?  Is it just one more bit of circumstantial evidence that wouldn’t have made a difference in the trial outcome?  Or is it a confirmation that the prosecution’s theory of Caylee’s death was accurate after all – and would it have led to a conviction?

Personally, I think this latest internet browsing evidence is no more or less reliable than the other evidence presented at trial; it’s just one more piece of the same.  So if this one overlooked bit of evidence really would have swung the case, then I’m thinking that the jury held to an unreasonably high standard of “reasonable doubt.”