July 29, 2011

The Criminal Justice System in Context

KS_2010aBy Karen Sternheimer

Unless you have been in a media-free cave for the last few weeks, you probably heard about the young woman from Orlando who was recently acquitted of clip_image002murdering her toddler daughter and released from jail. You also probably also heard about the public outrage following the verdict, including celebrity tweets condemning the trial’s outcome.

It’s easy to get caught up in the story’s lurid details. After all, the case and subsequent trial has basically been a reality show for the last three years. According to reports, coverage of the case has brought the cable channel HLN record ratings. Even casual onlookers probably have an opinion about the case and the verdict.

But more importantly, what can this case teach us about the criminal justice system?

  1. The rarer the case, the more news coverage it may receive

Most of what goes on in the criminal justice system remains out of public view. Media coverage tends to gravitate toward the sensational, especially if the case involves a young white female victim or accused offender. As Terry Glenn Lilley discussed in his post about murder victim Laci Peterson, young white females are more likely to be memorialized with laws in their honor.

clip_image004In 2009 (the latest date with complete FBI statistics) only 7.6 percent of those arrested for murder were female. And while whites comprise about 72 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 34 percent of those arrested for murder. So the defendant in this case was unusual in terms of both race and gender.

Reports also suggest that the family has been able to earn money from the coverage, presumably to pay for hiring a team of defense lawyers. ABC News apparently paid $200,000 in order to license home videos and photos to use in their coverage of the case. While intensive media coverage may not necessarily work to a defendant’s benefit, infamy can pay well. An acquittal means that a former defendant can sign a book or movie deal or get paid for an interview.

While true crime can make for interesting television, it does not give us a clear picture of what most people involved in the criminal justice system experience.

  1. A high-quality defense team makes a big difference

While commentators regularly criticized the tactics of the defense in this case, having a team of attorneys committed to a defendant can literally be the difference between life and death. The criminal justice system—past and present—is littered with death penalty cases where attorneys have been accused of gross negligence.

Many low-income defendants who rely on public defenders may find their cases plea bargained, particularly since defenders are paid by the case and may have little time or resources (or incentive) to adequately defend their client. Public defenders might have a large docket of cases that they are juggling too.

When I was growing up, a friend’s father was a defense lawyer who represented mostly low-income people accused of crimes. Many of his clients could not afford to pay anything, so occasionally he would get a used VCR or video game console in lieu of payment. Their family led a modest middle-class lifestyle, and unlike many other families with an attorney parent, they struggled financially. Although high-profile murder cases feature well-known (or soon to be well-known) defense attorneys, many of their colleagues stand to benefit far less financially from their work.


  1. Privilege matters

Jeffrey Reiman argues in his book The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison that the criminal justice system can be like a sieve for wealthier people, offering them numerous escape hatches that aren’t available to their lower-income counterparts. A focused, committed defense team shouldn’t be a luxury, but it is one way that people of means might avoid prison.

Privilege shouldn’t matter, and that’s probably what much of the anger about this verdict stems from. As with other high-profile acquittals, onlookers who are convinced of the defendant’s guilt feel outraged that the system didn’t seem to work.

In reality, thousands of low-income people of color feel the same way about the criminal justice system every day, as circumstantial evidence—often much less convincing than in this case—leads to numerous criminal convictions.

Even before a person goes on trial, privilege matters. One of the reasons this case was so unusual is that we tend not to think of young, attractive, white middle-class mothers as dangerous. This young woman seemed to defy that expectation, although news reports characterized her as a longtime “partier.”

A similar young low-income mother of color might have had more interactions with social service agencies to formally demonize her behavior and sanction her earlier in life. Even partying has difference consequences based on one’s privilege. Low-income teens are more likely to be arrested for disturbing the peace or curfew violations than middle-class teens in suburban areas and thus have more involvement with the criminal justice system. In contrast, writing bad checks and owing back taxes, two offenses the Orlando woman has also been charged with, are typically seen as less threatening white-collar crimes.

High-profile trials are packed with drama—so much of our fictional entertainment involves crime and punishment for this reason—but there is usually more going on sociologically than meets the eye. What other hidden realities of the criminal justice system might this blockbuster case reveal?


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I have to agree that depending on gender the case can get more or less attention. When a male commits a murder or is accused of it generally it is not very rare, but when a female commits murder it is not usual. The normal murder case involves a male who murdered someone not a female. If you think about all the school shootings in the past 20 years you see that almost every case it involved one or more males and no females. When you picture a murderer in your head you usually do not come up with a young female mother.

These types of trials are public displays. It's not a stretch to call them "reality tv". People like to watch attractive, controversial people on both. One of the staples of reality tv is the person you love to hate. I don't think this trial is any different.

These types of trials are public displays. It's not a stretch to call them "reality tv". People like to watch attractive, controversial people on both. One of the staples of reality tv is the person you love to hate. I don't think this trial is any different. bayan escort istanbul

This article was very interesting! I agree that the rarer the case is, the more coverage it receives. Not only was the young woman a white female, more importantly, she was a mother. Onlookers were intrigued by the way she carried out her role as a mother. This role of a mother consisted of certain rights and obligations that it appeared the young woman did not fulfill. The twisted nature and behavior of the mother kept people hooked on the trial. The media definitely intensified the trial and created more attraction toward it.

Has Casey Anthony actually signed a book or movie deal? She's such a pariah...

I agree that privilege shouldn't matter!

I have one question, is it good for the so called prisoner to get media attention or it just make it worse? Media pressure on one side and judiciary pressure on other, isn't it too much to defame the client? And how can we avoid this?

The rule of law has vanished in America’s criminal justice system. Prosecutors now decide whom to punish and how severely.

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