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Media Diagnosis and Trial of Casey Anthony

July 12, 2011

Okay, yes I know. This case is being grossly over-reported. CNN Headline News, even one week after the verdict still looks more like the Casey Anthony Channel than it does a news station. Cheney Mason’s criticism of the media’s “talking heads” is well founded. All kinds of vital news that has much more relevance and bearing on the average American appears to be getting cast aside for Headline News to engage in endless speculation and unfounded conclusions made by all kinds of self-proclaimed “experts” popping out of the woodwork. Nevertheless, the case does bring up some important issues as it relates to mental health and although I refuse to put her on trial on this blog and I refuse to engage on online diagnosis, I have decided to weigh in on a few matters that are relevant to the topic of this blog.

The jury has spoken. That’s our system. The State has the burden of proof in criminal cases and in civil cases, the Plaintiff has the burden of proof  (as I came to appreciate, having been a defendant myself in a now-dismissed civil Federal case where I, along with five other defendants, was sued by psychologist Ronald Federici for defamation, interference with business and conspiracy). Just look at the alternative in other systems, where people must prove themselves innocent. The case of Amanda Knox, being tried in Italy is a prime example and I say this as someone who is of Italian ancestry whose grandparents came here from Italy. There are many wonderful things about the Italian culture, but their criminal justice system is not one of them, in my opinion as an Italian-American.

While people in the US might balk at that comparison because Amanda Knox has been pretty much favorably portrayed in the US media, let’s remember that Amanda Knox has been highly vilified in Italy in much the same way Casey Anthony has been here in the US and was also put on trial there by the media. The difference is that the Italian courts do not have the same kind of screening and questioning of potential jurors that we have here in the US and their system is not based on the principle of innocent until proven guilty. The outcome is that this poor young woman, who is around the same age as Casey Anthony and also liked to party, has been found Guilty and has been languishing in an Italian prison for years as she awaits the outcome of her appeal. Finally, evidence is coming out that proves her innocent, but in the meantime, she has been subjected to outrageous injustice, much of which stems from the failure of the criminal justice system to protect her from being tried in the media. Here in the US, thankfully, we have protection from media bias. Potential jurors are carefully screened by both sides and sequestered during the trial and deliberations in high profile cases.

This is highly relevant to the topic of this blog because the burden of proof principle stems from the logical principle of not proving a negative. When a positive claim is being made, whether that be the claim that someone is guilty or the claim that Therapy X is effective, the burden of proof is on the claimant. What this means is that in criminal cases, the defense does not to need to prove anything. The defense can choose to say absolutely nothing and if the State fails to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, the correct verdict is Not Guilty. In the Casey Anthony case, the jurors determined that the state failed to prove their case, hence the Not Guilty verdict that we now must all accept. People who are upset about this might want to ask themselves what the alternative would be. The alternative is a system where people are presumed guilty until until proven not guilty. Just look at Amanda Knox. Is that really the kind of system we want? Not guilty does not necessarily mean innocent, but what it does mean is that we do not convict people here in the US without evidence. For those who are shouting “Justice for Caylee”, that’s what we all want, but is it really justice for Caylee to overthrow our entire system and convict a person who has not been proven guilty? I would have to agree with Jose Baez and say no, it is not.

This principle has been repeatedly misunderstood in the media by pundits stating that the defense did not “prove” their alternate theories of what could have happened to Caylee. The fact is that they did not have to. They have a very different standard and burden from the State. George Anthony was not on trial. If he were on trial, then that same burden of proof would apply and then the State would have to prove that he did what Casey Anthony and her defense team are alleging, but that is not the case. This is not an unfair double standard. This is based upon the principle that the burden of proof rests upon the claimant and in criminal cases, that means the State. Imagine a world where one is presumed guilty. Look at Amanda Knox and what has happened to her. Imagine what a society would be like where people can be charged and presumed guilty. Is that really the kind of society where you would like to live? The verdict is in. Let’s hope there is no vigilante justice against Casey, her parents, the defense team or the jurors. Let’s move on.

The other issue that I would like to comment on is the outrageous and shameless online diagnosis of Casey Anthony that has been occurring in the media, often by licensed mental health professionals who have never even examined Casey. Just yesterday one of the talking heads on CNN Headline News was asked the excellent question by one of the viewers of whether any actual psychiatric evaluations of Casey Anthony will ever be made public. The talking head’s response was that she didn’t know but that the person could always go on the internet and look up the views of various mental health professionals who have been following the case, but never actually examined Casey! No, no, no. That is horrible advice. This is a prime example of the kinds of misconceptions people have about what kind of evidence is valid when it comes to mental health. Mental health professionals who are diagnosing Casey as a psychopath, a sociopath, a narcissist or whatever are behaving highly unethically in my opinion. They have no business making such pronouncements about an individual they have not been examined.

What CNN Headline News has not discussed much at all is the one time that I am aware of that a psychologist was interviewed who did conduct a psychiatric examination of Casey Anthony, a former defense expert, psychologist William Weitz. Dr. Weitz was interviewed by Nancy Grace on July 8, 2011. Dr. Weitz disclosed that based upon his examination, he found no evidence of any mood disorders, personality disorders or sociopathy. Although Nancy Grace had this individual on, she has also repeatedly had psychotherapist guests on who never examined Casey and have give baseless opinions about her mental state, baseless because they never examined her.

That is what the standardized testing Dr. Weitz did on Casey Anthony showed according to what he reported in the interview, but that hasn’t stopped all the self-proclaimed “experts” on narcissism and sociopathy from coming out of the woodwork to diagnose Casey, someone they have never even met, much less examined. One could argue that this was a defense expert and thus had that bias, but so far there is no other evidence based on standardized psychiatric testing. The only other evidence we have is that the court found her mentally competent to stand trial. That, of course, is a different kind of testing that only needs to show that she is competent to understand the charges against her and participate in her own defense. However, thus far there is no evidence based on valid and reliable standard psychological tests, that Casey Anthony has any personality disorder or sociopathic tendencies. Yet the some people in the media persist in creating characters that may bear little resemblance to the actual human being.  This is also what happened to Amanda Knox in Italy. The difference is that the Italian criminal justice system convicted Amanda Knox and did not protect her from media bias. Our system does offer such protection where people can get a fair trial and are not guilty unless proven guilty in a court of law. That is what Jose Bias, Dorothy Clay Sims, Cheney Mason and the other members of Casey Anthony’s defense team were celebrating.

What all this points to is how uncomfortable human beings are with not knowing. Some people would much rather convict Casey Anthony without sufficient evidence rather than admit that we do not know what happened to Caylee Anthony and that we may never know what actually happened. That kind of certainty, even if not based on evidence, is so much more comfortable to live with but, let’s not fool ourselves. Convicting her mother of murder without sufficient evidence is not justice for Caylee.

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