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The Casey Anthony verdict and the burden of proof

Earlier this week, Casey Anthony walked on first-degree murder and child abuse charges, but was convicted of lying to the police. After the verdicts were announced, people took to the Internet to comment on their views about the case.

The comments take two general forms. First, about half of the people think Anthony got away with something due to how long it took Anthony to go to the police, the party pics, and her ever-changing story. The other half thought that the prosecution didn’t prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. So, the difference between the two types of comments appears to have roots in the burden of proof.

“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is a very high standard. It means all 12 people on the jury had to be absolutely convinced that Anthony really murdered her own daughter. From my limited knowledge about the case, which I didn’t follow closely, I understand that the police couldn’t really identify the cause of death because it took a while to discover the poor little girl’s body. This is a sticking point for lots of criminal juries due to the burden of proof. It is a missing piece of knowledge that prevents the jurors from being absolutely convinced that someone is guilty of a crime.

In civil cases, the burden is not “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Technically, it is called a “preponderance of the evidence,” but all that means is “which explanation is more likely than not?” So, in a civil case, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that her story is more likely than not to be true. If the defendant’s view of the case is more believable, or both stories are equally plausible, then the defense wins.

In some civil cases, both sides have experts that testify about the sides’ differing viewpoints. In those cases, the jury simply must decide which expert’s explanation is more believable. Oftentimes, the difference of opinion between experts boils down to which expert is willing to continue learning about new medical research and technologies. We see lots of experts who don’t educate themselves about these things and then testify based on twenty-year-old medical knowledge without any significant effort at continuing education. As a comparison, I wouldn’t want a 1982 computer technician working on my 2008 laptop, even if he is an expert on 1982 computers. I’d rather trust someone with more current knowledge about the subject matter.

In other civil cases, a patient’s doctor testifies about his treatment, and the defense hires an expert (who often has a long track history of testifying against injury victims) to testify that the patient isn’t as hurt as she says she is. Again, the jury has to decide which story is more believable: is the patient tricking the doctor, her coworkers, and her friends and family, or is the well-seasoned defense expert saying what he always says to help the insurance company and its insured escape responsbility?

Finally, there are civil cases where the defense doesn’t even hire an expert to testify. In those cases, the insurance companies try to save a litle money by appealing to juror cynicism. That is, the insurance company lawyer tries to portray the injury victim as a liar, cheat, and fake. Sometimes they accuse the lawyers and doctors of colluding with each other. In this situation, the jury’s task is simply to decide whether the injured person and all her witnesses are telling the truth, or whether the insurance company on the other side is trying to get away with its insured doing something wrong.

One thing that often gets lost in civil trials also deals with the burden of proof. As we’ve written about before, money is the only way our civil justice system allows harm to be corrected. Well, in a civil trial the proper amount of money is the difference between what could have been and what actually is. So the law tells juries that they must award the amount that is more likely than not to put the victim back in the place they were before the harm occurred.

One last thought on the burden of proof. Because the standard isn’t “beyond a reasonable doubt” in civil cases, that means it’s okay for a juror to have doubts about the case. But, as long as there is less doubt on the victim’s side than on the defense’s side, then the law requires the jury to side with the victim.