Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

by Katherine Scardino

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is a tough burden for the State to meet. The article written by Andrea Campbell and published on Women in Crime last Friday, which discussed the many different types of evidence that may be presented in a criminal trial in the United States, within the context of the Casey Anthony trial. The State may obtain a conviction based solely on circumstantial evidence. Circumstantial evidence points to the guilt of the defendant, but is not tangible evidence to connect the defendant directly. In other words, there are no crime scene fingerprints, DNA, eyewitnesses to the crime, etc... pointing directly to the accused as the culprit. The jury may render a verdict of guilty based solely on such circumstantial evidence if the jurors believe beyond a reasonable doubt that this evidence is credible and proven. But, I do not want to write another Casey Anthony article. Let’s look at evidence another way.

I wrote an article a few weeks ago about the recent flurry of powerful men who had been accused of, to say the least, low morals - or as I wrote - acting like pigs. Along with others, I mentioned Dominique Strauss-Kahn and even violated my own rule by lumping him in with those other men, mainly politicians, who seemed to have a problem keeping their pants zipped. Mr. Strauss-Kahn was a little different in that he was actually accused of committing a sexual assault against a maid in his hotel. His position rose to a higher level of accountability and a higher level of loss. He was not looking at an angry, vengeful divorce but the possible loss of his freedom and certainly his reputation and stature in the world.

I think the circumstances surrounding Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest and subsequent public disclosure in shackles are an embarrassment to the United States. We pride ourselves on the basic tenet that here, in the good old USA, a person accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty. You hear this constantly. Is that really true? I can answer that as a resounding “No." I can stand in front of a jury and state that each juror must believe that the accused person, standing before you prior to the jury hearing all of the evidence, is an innocent person. But, the mere fact that there is a person accused of misconduct standing in the courtroom around a counsel table with prosecutors, a court reporter, a judge and now a jury, is a weight that bears on the side of the prosecutor. The accused should not be judged in the news media like Mr. Strauss-Kahn was. We should never have arrested him without having done the smallest bit of investigation to at least make the evidence appear credible. 

In Federal court, the general rule is that when a Federal Grand Jury indicts a citizen of the United States, the US Attorney’s office has already conducted an investigation sufficient to believe that the accused is actually guilty. Don’t get me wrong - that does not mean that he is truly guilty, but it should mean that the US Attorney has enough evidence to get in front of a trial jury. 

The New York prosecutor jumped the gun on Mr. Strauss- Khan. The media reported that he was hoping to run for Mayor of New York and wanted the publicity. I do not profess to know his reasons with certainty. My complaint with the manner of Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s arrest is that there appears to have been zero work done on the credibility of the State’s evidence prior to his arrest. If the district attorney had done a small amount of investigation, he would have uncovered what he now is stating publicly - that the alleged victim is not a credible person. That does not mean the act did not occur. It simply means that he cannot take his case to a jury because he does not have the right kind of evidence that he can support.

So, what will happen now? The district court judge released Mr. Strauss-Kahn from house arrest. I do not know what other bail restrictions were lowered for him, but the dismissal from the prosecution should be coming soon. Where does that leave the United States? How about red-faced?

Is this a lesson for those of us who appeared so eager to accept the maid’s story as credible? It is easy to jump immediately to a conviction in cases of sexual assault. After all, why would a woman lie about that? In this case it could be money, publicity, attention, a twisted sense of need, or a combination of all of those things. If, in fact, a dismissal of all charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn occurs, as seems likely, we owe this man an apology.

Which brings me back, briefly, to Casey Anthony and the burden of proof. In cases where the State is trying to terminate a parent’s parental rights - the most serious case in the world of Family Law - the burden of proof is “clear and convincing evidence.” That evidence is weighed by the jury and the side who has the greater weight of evidence wins. That is a lower burden of proof than in a criminal case. Beyond a reasonable doubt is a phrase that is not defined in our Penal Code. It is not the CSI phrase that is used in error - “without a shadow of doubt." Each juror must look at the evidence and form his or her own opinion whether the evidence reaches the highest burden of proof in our country, that of beyond a reasonable doubt. It is my opinion that a capital murder trial where death is an option should not be decided on evidence that is loose or circumstantial. Apparently, the Casey Anthony jury agreed.

So, those of you who are amazed at the verdict, think again. The State decided to seek the death penalty against a woman without having evidence that rose to the highest level of proof, and these twelve individuals analyzed this evidence carefully and all twelve, unanimously, agreed that the proper verdict was not guilty. That does not mean she is innocent. It means the State could not give them enough evidence with which to convict, evidence that rose to the highest level of proof, which was their accepted burden. The jury did what they all believed was right.

Let’s put Mr. Strauss-Kahn and Ms. Anthony together. Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s case should have been investigated enough for the prosecutor to see whether he had sufficient evidence that could rise to that level of proof. The New York prosecutor has publicly admitted he has a problem with his evidence. The prosecutors in the Casey Anthony trial looked at their circumstantial case and believed that they could convince a jury that their evidence did rise to that level of proof. They just made a serious mistake because they underestimated the citizens who they helped choose to render a verdict.

photo credits: Parti socialiste, billaday


Anonymous said...

I love you for this statement ms. Scardino...

"It is my opinion that a capital murder trial where death is an option should not be decided on evidence that is loose or circumstantial."

I have strongly supported Casey Anthony in any discussion for that exact reason.

Andrea Campbell said...

Katherine does an excellent job describing some difficult concepts and a source of frustration for criminal justice industry workers.