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Casey Anthony: "The System Worked"???


Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz has a piece in today's Wall Street Journal titled, "Casey Anthony: The System Worked."

My first reaction was to think  --  then we need to change the system.  In fact, however, the column mostly just makes the mundane point that, for good reason, a criminal trial requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, this being an essential safeguard against the power of the state.

So far, so good.  Indeed, one wonders why Prof. Dershowitz goes to the trouble of stating the obvious.  But there is one point at which he goes critically astray.  He states, "...a criminal trial is not a search for truth. Scientists search for truth. Philosophers search for morality. A criminal trial searches for only one result: proof beyond a reasonable doubt."

In a strictly formalistic sense, that's right, but in reality, it's more an expose' of the deficiencies of formalism.  His error is in omitting what exactly is to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, namely, the truth about the defendant's conduct and state of mind.  The idea that "a criminal trial is not a search for truth" is at best very distorted, and, taken on its own terms, poisonous.

When truth gets put in second place, we already know what fills the vacuum left at the top, i.e., gamesmanship.  It just won't do to dismiss truth-seeking as the mission only of scientists, and morality as the off-there-somewhere business of philosophers.  Justice  --  the merger of truth and morality  --  is, instead, the indispensable backdrop that gives resonance to, and assures continued public support for, the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  When these things are dismissed as easily as Professor Dershowitz seems to, and when in consequence Casey Anthony-type verdicts start to proliferate, we are certain to see growing pressure to junk the very civil libertarian safeguards Professor Dershowitz rightly values.


Well at least here in California, we have a law that says trials are supposed to be searches for the truth and that it is the duty of the Court to structure the procedings to find the truth. Penal Code section 1044 states: "It shall be the duty of the judge to control all proceedings during the trial, and to limit the introduction of evidence and the argument of counsel to relevant and material matters, with a view to the expeditious and effective ascertainment of the truth regarding the matters involved."

Apparently we need such a law to remind some people why we have jury trials and the adversary system in the first place.

I really appreciate this article. You have put your finger on the very problem that this trial exposed- if truth does not matter and morality does not matter, why even have laws or trials? What is the point of law or trial if the underpinning- truth and morality- is removed? There is none!

My fear in the aftermath of this travesty is that the public is becoming so enraged at obviously wrong verdicts like this, we will have a backlash and the pendulum will swing too far the other way. Those defense attorneys and their "consultants" who see nothing beyond the pursuit of their own fame are the ruin of the system.

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