Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

The difference between “not guilty” and “innocent”

July 14, 2011 by Dr. Steve Frank


As all the world knows, Casey Anthony, who was found not guilty last week in the death of her two-year-old daughter, Caylee, will be released from prison on Sunday.

Casey Anthony's Florida mug shot

Before we cleanse our minds of the sordid affair and wash our hands of a cast of characters who make the Borgias look like models of family values, it’s worth pausing to think how we all might respond on Sunday to Anthony’s freedom.

I can’t claim to have followed the sensational trial closely and really only tuned in to the media frenzy that surrounded it in the aftermath of the verdict’s announcement. But from that distance I am prepared to sign on to the national consensus that, in all likelihood, Anthony bore responsibility for the death of her little girl.

When the verdict was announced I asked Lyle Denniston to comment on it for Constitution Daily. You can read his post by clicking here. But in a nutshell, what Denniston said was that from the perspective of the Constitution, the trial jury did what they were supposed to do.

“The Constitution’s Sixth Amendment does not promise, and does not require, a perfect trial in any criminal case,” he wrote. “The amendment does guarantee that the trial will be fair.”

Denniston went on to explain the difference between “factual guilt” and “legal innocence,” a distinction that a number of commentators have drawn in the aftermath of the not-guilty verdict: Just because you’re found “not guilty” doesn’t mean that you’re “innocent.”

Determinations of factual guilt, we all learned, are unencumbered by the safeguards the Constitution erects to secure the rights of criminal defendants through jury trials.

And those safeguards are considerable. It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of juries to our Constitution’s design. They appear in the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Amendments—three of the 10 amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights.

To pronounce guilt, juries must determine that prosecutors have narrowly met the burden of legal proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The media and the rest of us have wider ground on which to pronounce, and sometimes rush to, judgment.

The ongoing debate

As a country we have long argued over how far those constitutional safeguards should go, and we will continue to do so long after Casey Anthony is forgotten.

Civil libertarians, fearing the rush to judgment, believe that criminal defendants’ rights are paramount, and thus that juries should err in that direction. Law-and-order proponents maintain that the Constitution’s safeguards should not be interpreted so strictly as to impede a jury’s ability to reach a correct verdict in particular cases.

Was justice served in the Anthony case? The civil libertarian in me says, yes. I’m glad to live in a country that puts in the hands of ordinary citizens – a jury of our peers – a check on various forms of prosecutorial abuse.

But as I stipulated at the outset, I have signed on to the national consensus that Casey Anthony is at best a poster-girl for maternal neglect and at worst a modern-day Medea.

Which brings me back to the question of how to react on Sunday. If last week’s verdict was legally and constitutionally correct, then justice for Casey Anthony lies somewhere outside the judicial system.

As a society, we have other means to recalibrate the scales of justice. And we have used them before – notably in the case of O.J. Simpson, which turned him, after the jury had done its work, into a social pariah. I’m inclined to think that the glove fits.

How should we respond to Anthony’s release on Sunday and the media circus that is sure to surround it? Ignore it. That would approximate justice for her and be one less distraction for the rest of us.

Steve Frank is editor of Constitution Daily and the National Constitution Center’s Chief Interpretive Officer.


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