Misconceptions About Famous Trials

By Allison Gamble

America loves a good court case. You have only to look at the recent coverage of the Casey Anthony trial for proof that Americans are obsessed with high-profile criminal proceedings. The OJ Simpson murder trial is another example that kept America captivated through 41 days of trial. Yet the public perception of these cases varied widely. Casey Anthony was largely presumed guilty of killing her daughter, and outrage followed her acquittal. When OJ Simpson was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife and her lover, however, public opinion as to why he was or was not guilty was divided, often along racial lines. It’s easy to get swept away by the tidal wave of public opinion, but far more difficult is understanding why these cases resulted in the verdicts that they did and how they have affected the American court system.

Burden of Proof

In both the Anthony and Simpson cases, guilt had to be established by meeting a burden of proof. In these cases, this required the prosecution to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the accused had committed a crime. The defense, meanwhile, had only to refute these claims. In both cases, the burden of proof was not met, and the jury had no choice but to acquit.

In the Simpson case, there was solid physical evidence. This included the 911 call, Simpson’s history of domestic violence, hair, fiber, and blood samples, the infamous gloves (one at the Simpson residence and one at the murder scene), and bloody shoeprints. Additionally, forensic psychology seemed to indicate Simpson’s guilt because of his Bronco flight and his bizarre reaction to the phone call informing him of his ex-wife’s death.

Prosecutors in the Casey Anthony case, on the other hand, had no direct evidence linking Anthony to her daughter’s death. Much of the physical evidence cited, such as the chloroform smell in the trunk, was discovered using methods not yet admissible in court. Likewise, no witnesses ever connected Anthony to the death, and the prosecution couldn’t say for certain how or when Caylee died. Anthony’s initial lies regarding her daughter’s disappearance were explained by defense experts who claimed that Anthony had been sexually abused by her father and taught to lie. Likewise, much of the public opinion that condemned Anthony for Caylee’s death stemmed from media reports of her partying while her daughter was missing.

In both cases, forensic psychology was used to explain certain behaviors. Prosecutors in the Simpson case attempted to use it to prove Simpson’s guilt, while defense attorneys lead by Johnny Cochran worked to throw prosecution’s case into doubt by hinting at law enforcement corruption and racial discrimination. Indeed, many feared a guilty verdict could lead to a repeat of the Los Angeles race riots that followed the Rodney King beating. In the Anthony case, her behavior was used to cover for the lack of physical evidence in the case.

In neither instance can anyone but the defendants, and perhaps their attorneys, say whether or not they are truly guilty, but American public holds specific opinions in each case. According to polls following the Simpson trial, 56 percent of Americans disagreed with the verdict. A Gallup poll following the Anthony verdict revealed that 64 percent of Americans felt she had definitely or probably murdered her daughter.

Continuing Effects

James Picht points out an important aspect of public interest in court cases: “When we’re more concerned about justice for the victim than justice for the accused, we tend to bias our interpretation of the evidence.” Psychologically, we are quick to condemn when we empathize with victims. It’s easy to believe that a mother killed her child because mothers have killed their children, and these appalling crimes stick deep in our collective consciousness. One need only utter the name Andrea Yates to elicit a shudder. Casey Anthony’s name may soon get a similar reaction, one compounded by the idea that this mother got away with murder. Yet where is the evidence of this? Where is the conclusive evidence that Anthony killed her daughter? As appalling as her behavior may’ve been, there is nothing but the barest circumstantial evidence to connect her to the crime.

A case out of England highlights how dangerous it can be to jump to conclusions. On February 2, 2011, Abby Podmore of Birmingham, UK was forced to take her son home from the hospital despite the fact that he was suffering from pneumonia. The next morning, she found him dead, but when she called police she was arrested on suspicion of murder. Although later released, the grieving mother was in jail overnight because police quickly assumed she had caused her child’s death. The coroner determined the death to have been from natural causes. This incident certainly demonstrates that public opinion can lead the police to act rashly. With public opinion currently very much against Anthony, it is easy to see that subsequent cases in which a child dies accidentally might be treated as homicides without justification in an effort to prevent a similar acquittal from happening again.

The impact of the Simpson case has had longer to sink in, and when PBS interviewed a number of experts in the field ten years later, a variety of opinions were expressed. Harvard Law Professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. referred to it as a watershed case that altered perceptions of the criminal justice system as it relates to race. Alan Dershowitz, one of Simpson’s defense attorneys, cites the improvements in the city’s race relations and police force as a lasting impact. Ultimately, the case made Americans more comfortable with discussing race as an issue of justice. From a psychological perspective, it opened the way for cases like that of former death row inmate Cory Maye, who was certainly not guilty of first degree murder, to be heard.

Ultimately, it’s important that Americans take a step back from emotionally charged court cases. It’s equally essential for law enforcement to avoid attempting to correct perceived miscarriages of justice by subsequent overzealousness. The shortcomings of each trial must be acknowledged so that attorneys can learn from them, but it is also important for the public to put away preconceived notions of guilt and innocence and wait instead for the verdict of a court of law rather than the court of public opinion.

Allison Gamble is a student of psychology who brings her understanding of the mind to the world of internet marketing.  Allison writes for forensicpsychology.net.