Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Shadow of a Doubt (On Cookies, Convictions, and Casey Anthony)

"Don't touch the cookies."

These are the words you say, but apparently, much like the famous Far Side cartoon, a 4 year old only hears, "blah, blah, blah, COOKIES!"

I know this first hand because a few years ago one of our boys was caught reaching for a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie after being told they were off limits.   This is not surprising.  What was surprising was his response after being spotted mid reach by his mother.

Jennifer (31) - "Justin!  I said no cookies."

Justin (4) - "I wasn't going to take one."

Jennifer (31) - "Then why were you reaching for one?"

Justin (4) - "I wasn't reaching.  I was giving it shade."

It was that moment that came to mind when I heard the Casey Anthony verdict come down yesterday, well, more accurately when I heard the response to the verdict on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ (yeah it's a thing now, get used to it.)

Now before going any deeper, I have to admit something: I know almost nothing about this case.  I have not followed it. In fact, I have actively avoided its coverage and commentary.  The whole thing reeks of sensationalism and I have this voice that goes off in my brain about these kinds of stories that says, "none of your business, nothing to see here, move along."  This sickness also tends to purge information I might have already taken in, making for awkward conversations with people who have already tried to explain it to me before. At a family gathering this past weekend I literally asked the question, "Who is Casey Anthony again?" so any opinion I have on the merits of the case is beyond suspect and inadmissible not only in a court of law but the court of life.  Most of my information on the case comes from my mom, who actually lives in Orlando and also watches Fox News like my dog watches me when I'm eating pizza.  From what I can piece together from the parts that remain in my memory from those conversations and the bits from friends commentary these are the assumed "facts".

- We are all pretty sure Casey Anthony did some bad stuff and a child died.

- We are all strongly opposed to children dying.

Does that about sum it up?

If that assessment sounds too curt for such a heinous crime please chalk it up to my ignorance and not insensitivity. The truth is my concern in this post has very little to do with the innocence or guilt of Casey Anthony and much more to do with our reaction as a culture to this moment in time when a group of humans said of another human, "nope, we can't be sure they did it."

Within minutes (if not seconds) of the verdict being reached my Twitter feed was flooded with shock and rage. There were one or two more thoughtful tweets, but the gut reaction of the masses was clear, "As soon as I find my pitchfork I'll be coming for Casey Anthony and the jurors that let her off the hook."  Many tweets went the "Christian" route declaring that vengeance would be God's, some with an almost sickening joy.  The whole thing left me asking a singular question.

How do we know?

What is it that makes us so sure we know what 12 others, who were tasked with the job, couldn't figure out? From my minuscule understanding of the process of law, our system is designed to make sure innocent people don't get punished. Because of this, people who might be guilty sometimes go free.  It's a system that is built on the idea that if we don't know for a fact you did it, we won't make you pay the price for it.  Even the word "conviction" itself is a word of sureness.  It literally means a fixed or firm belief.  When somebody calls a prisoner a "convict" the word itself says, "Yep, you did it, and we are sure."  That certainty doesn't create a perfect system, it grants that every system is imperfect so when we mess up we are going to make sure that mistake favors the innocent.

Why, then have we become so sure?

Maybe we aren't, maybe we're just noisy.

To be sure is to be deliberate, and to be deliberate takes time.  Status updates have taught us that being sure isn't as important as sounding sure, and both are secondary to just being heard which only takes a second.  Social networking has turned us all (this author included) into the child who grabs a microphone and blurts nonsense just to hear his own voice coming through the speakers.  These cultural moments come and go with such immediacy and fervency now, it's hard not to get sucked into the din.  You fear if you don't say something of pith and wit quickly, someone will beat you to it, or worse yet, the moment will pass.  Even as I type this sentence today, I fear it's relevance may have already flat-lined.  "Casey Anthony? Aren't we past that already?".  But those jurors didn't live in the moment of their decision, they lived in the process of making it, and at the end of the day, like it or not, I have to trust that their process trumps my moment.

When my son claimed six years ago that he was giving the cookies shade and not planning on taking one, is it possible he was telling the truth?  Is it possible he heard his mother say they were too hot to eat and he thought by shading them he could hasten the cooling process?  Yes, absolutely, yes.  As much as my parental radar goes off in that moment, if I stop to really think it through, it is certainly a possibility.  Do I think that's what happened? No.

But I'm just not sure.  Are you?