Punditry at its worst

For those living under a rock, Casey Anthony was found not guilty Tuesday in the death of her baby, Caylee. I have never offered an opinion on the case and will not start now. Others were not as reserved.

Celebrities, columnists and Facebook enthusiasts offered their thoughts on how the case was litigated and its outcome. Noted legal scholar and recurring pop singer Mandy Moore tweeted in part: “i’m [sic] from orlando [sic] and have been hooked on the trial the last few weeks. The defense team was abysmal! this [sic] is shocking! i [sic] thought the prosecution was stellar, obv [sic] not enough to convince the jury tho [sic].”

Once the verdict came out, the talking heads graced each of the various news channels. Lawyers were the usual suspects. Inherently, it smacks of impropriety for a member of the bar to appear on such shows and offer opinions on a case he or she knows little about. It degrades the profession, and more importantly, jeopardizes the fundamental principle that we are all innocent until proven guilty. In that respect, Casey Anthony’s defense lawyers got it right when they offered their repudiation of the entire process.

What really grabbed my attention on the news channels, though, were the “jury consultants.” These “experts” were often asked how the jury would react to certain questions or evidence, such as the allegations made against Casey’s father, George Anthony. Notable examples were the jury consultants often paraded on the Nancy Grace Show.

Yesterday’s verdict confirmed a sentiment I’ve expressed openly for a while: the work of jury consultants is similar to that of their cousins, psychics. Anyone who says they can read a jury’s vote is either confused or hasn’t tried many jury trials. This is especially true when one tries to incorporate social sciences into that dynamic uncertainty.

For example, here’s what a jury consultant wrote in an article on Grace’s website about Juror No. 7: a “Divorced 41-year-old white female; no kids. She recalls a child being missing; she remembers hearing ‘something about Universal and a baby sitter.’” From this in-depth analysis, the “expert” concludes, ”This juror seems to be in favor of the state.” How did she arrive at that conclusion?

The same goes for Juror No. 8:  “Married white woman in her 50s; service representative. She had limited knowledge of the case and no problem with the death penalty.” The consultant’s assessment? “This juror seems to be in favor of the state.” Again, how and why? If anything, the fact that she had no knowledge of the case could be seen as a boon for the defense. To that end, several jury consultants noted that because one person on the jury had a masters degree and the rest of the jurors weren’t nearly as educated, the prosecution would benefit.

As someone with a degree in anthropology, I’d be the first to admit that any attempt to determine how someone will vote based on their race, educational background or other demographic indices is junk science. I’d submit there is a gigantic flaw with the “science” used by jury consultants. It’s the reason so many are expressing disbelief concerning the verdict and why many talking heads have a lot of backtracking to do.

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