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.