The 13th Juror

Before the verdict in the Casey Anthony murder trial was announced, HLN’s Nancy Grace, lawyer and host of her own show, has been banging the drums loudly for almost three years regarding the absolute, undeniable guilt of this woman.

Before I go any further, let me say that this commentary is not about the guilt or innocence of Ms. Anthony. It’s about the responsibility or rather, the lack of responsibility by a member of the national media.

Click on her website and, below a banner that reads CNN Justice, you’ll see a photo of Ms. Grace glaring down, not like lady Justice, but more like the Lord High Executioner. Grace’s shrill statements regarding the guilt of Casey Anthony have been both breathtakingly autocratic and consistent in the worst tabloid tradition. Her relentless conviction in Anthony’s guilt – before Anthony was even arrested – rivals that of Lt. Gerard in tracking down Fugitive Richard Kimble.

Presumption of innocence is a legal right of anyone accused of a crime. The burden of proof rests on the prosecution, not on a TV lawyer pandering to blatant emotionalism. I stopped watching Grace years ago due to her exceedingly biased opinions that are only interrupted by a commercial. In the last three years, anyone in need of a Casey Anthony fix, only had to visit the Grace Web site to be regularly updated on the following:

“Tot mom walks free Wednesday”; “Tot mom verdict: Not Guilty”; “Essential Guide to the Casey Anthony trial.”

And that’s just a short list.

Criminal defense attorney Alan Dershowitz put the trial and the jury system in a more reasoned, and far less strident context.

“A criminal trial is never about seeking justice for the victim,” Dershowitz writes in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, “If it were, there could be only one verdict: guilty. That’s because only one person is on trial in a criminal case, and if that one person is acquitted, then by definition there can be no justice for the victim in that trial.

“A criminal trial is neither a whodunit nor a multiple choice test. It is not even a criminal investigation to determine who among various possible suspects might be responsible for a terrible tragedy. In a murder trial, the state, with all of its power, accuses an individual of being the perpetrator of a dastardly act against a victim. The state must prove that accusation by admissible evidence and beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Even if it is ‘likely’ or ‘probable’ that a defendant committed the murder, he [or she] must be acquitted, because neither likely nor probable satisfies the daunting standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, a legally proper result—acquittal in such a case—may not be the same as a morally just result. In such a case, justice has not been done to the victim, but the law has prevailed.”

Opinions in the media can provide greater clarity in our own manner at looking at events of the day. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, John King, Candy Crowley; Fox News’s Neil Cavuto, Shepard Smith and Greta Van Susteren all have opinions, but none can match the fury and absolutism of Grace. What concerns me about Nancy Grace is not her opinion but her incessant, self-righteous approach to Anthony’s guilt well-before jury selection.

Over the last three years, Grace has sounded less like a reasoned lawyer and more like the lynch-mob leader in the Henry Fonda movie, The Ox-Bow Incident who is not only certain of the guilt of three men but pushes the others in the posse for immediate hanging.

Opinion is good. It’s important. It is a living, fundamental component of democracy. But the power of the press should always be treated as a public trust in that democracy. And responsible journalism must include the quality of self-restraint; to voice your opinion in a way that does not degrade the process of opinion itself. And that self-restraint must be utilized if you maintain a regular presence as host of a radio or TV show that carries the potential to influence.

“That is why we care about the character of news and journalism we get,” write Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in their book, The Elements of Journalism. “…they influence the quality of our lives, our thoughts, and our culture.”

One of the duties of a responsible press, ethicist Michael Josephson tell us is “confronting us with opinions and facts which challenge us to live up to our values and beliefs.”

While Grace confronts us with opinions that certainly challenge, her hyper-emotional rhetoric and countless Web site updates only serve to inflame the passions and emotions of others, needlessly.

There is little doubt that Casey Anthony is responsible for her own misery. Her numerous self-serving lies and actions regarding the horrific death of her daughter would make Narcissus blush. However, Nancy Grace’s relentless self-righteousness carries the very real possibility of harm in poisoning the opinions of potential jurors or those who would seek to take justice into their own hands.

“… a criminal trial is not a search for truth,” Dershowitz writes. “Scientists search for truth. Philosophers search for morality. A criminal trial searches for only one result: proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In the final analysis, a well-reasoned opinion is more valuable than a self-righteous rant.

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