By: A. Scott Washington, J.D.
By now we all know the facts of the Casey Anthony case. Caylee goes missing. Casey fails to report Caylee missing, lies to her family about the child’s whereabouts, and behaves deviously throughout the police investigation and public campaign to find Caylee. We’ve seen photographs of the young single mother partying hard while her toddler daughter is missing. She is photographed during the duration of little Caylee’s disappearance drinking, partying and committing petty crimes. Caylee’s remains are found months later dumped just blocks from the Anthony home.
Guilty of first degree capital murder? According to the Prosecution … but no one else.
An Orange County Florida jury acquitted Casey Anthony of the capital murder of her three-year- old daughter Caylee. Prosecutors alleged that Anthony deliberately, and with premeditation ended the life of Caylee. In a capital murder case, the prosecutor must establish every element of murder plus properly weigh the aggravating factors present in the case.
Prosecutors in jurisdictions across the country routinely overcharge criminal suspects in their zeal for the almighty “W.” Casey Anthony charged with first degree capital murder is a prime example of these practices. It has been three years since charges were filed against Anthony. I have watched and listened to the pundits; closely monitored the trial; debated the issues with college students; and replayed the facts as they have been presented dozens of times. I have yet to hear or see any evidence that would remotely suggest that Anthony specifically intended, with premeditation, to end the life of little Caylee.
Florida defines murder as the unlawful killing of a human being “when perpetrated from a premeditated design.” When a prosecutor makes the charge that one is responsible for the death of another, the discussion turns to the level of the criminal intent (or culpability) of the accused. A murder charge, as opposed to some lesser homicide offense (which should have been more vigorously argued here) requires the presence of a premeditated design. In other words, the accused must have the specific intent to kill. Where specific intent to kill is not present, second degree murder or manslaughter is usually charged.
The win at all cost approach in this case led to a disregard for the facts of the case (i.e., the totality of the circumstances specific to this particular case), and ultimately the pursuit for truth and justice. The case of Florida vs. Casey Anthony is not and has never been a death penalty case. Was this a case of child neglect or abuse? Maybe. Was it negligent or reckless homicide? Probably. It is clear to me that the States Attorney’s office was seeking more than truth and justice when filing its case against Anthony. It was seeking the “W” at the highest level possible; a death sentence.In this case, the prosecutors approached twelve reasonable jurors with an unreasonable request; send an attractive white female to death row to await lethal injection on the basis of an ill- conceived theory of the case, shoddy circumstantial evidence, and junk science.
The State’s Attorney here simply overcharged Anthony and offended the jury. Once offended, the jury rejected any
theory of the case the prosecutor put forward. Thus, it disregarded the evidence and science that would have supported a lower level homicide conviction.
Juries typically do not want to send a person to their death. By focusing so much on the “W” at the highest level, and failing to present the strongest possible case for a lower level homicide conviction, the prosecution in this case failed.
The laws that Anthony potentially violated in this case in terms of the death of Caylee are:
Florida Murder Statute 782.04(2), which states:
The unlawful killing of a human being, when perpetrated by any act imminently dangerous to another and evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life, although WITHOUT any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual, is murder in the second degree and constitutes a felony … emphasis added
Florida Murder Statute 782.07(3), which states:
A person who causes the death of any person under the age of 18 by culpable negligence under the Florida child abuse statute commits aggravated manslaughter of a child, a felony…
According to the Florida Department of Corrections’ website, the average sentence for a conviction of one of the aforementioned Florida statutes (non-capital murder statutes) is nineteen years. We now await the sentencing and release of Casey Anthony. It is likely that she will be credited with time served for the misdemeanor conviction for lying to law enforcement and released.
The prosecution in this case had several options in terms of charging Anthony. By overcharging Anthony and overzealously pursuing a specific intent premeditated capital murder case (the elements of which could not be established), the prosecution not only abused its discretion, but offended the jury; thus, breaching its duty to the criminal justice system, the people of Florida, and most importantly, little Caylee Anthony.
A. Scott Washington, J.D. is an Assistant Professor of Criminal and Social Justice at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois