I don’t remember exactly how old she was, but as best I can recall she was about ten. I found her just a few hours after she was killed.
It happened more than 25 years ago, but the memory haunts me still. I had been a cop in South Central Los Angeles for a few years and seen many people who had come to a violent end, but I had never seen a murder victim so young and so undeserving of what became of her.
I had been sent on a radio call about a missing child, a fairly common occurrence, and there was nothing to indicate it would turn out any differently than any of the others I had handled: You go to the house, talk to the parents, take a report, and then make a big show of conducting a search while waiting for the child to come running home or turn up at some friend’s or relative’s house. Every cop knows the routine.
So I was one of a handful of officers who went knocking on doors on the street where the girl lived, asking residents if they had seen her and if they would allow us to look in their backyards and garages and any other place on their property where a ten-year-old might hide. It was at the third or fourth house I came to that a man answered the door and told me, no, he hadn’t seen the girl and to go ahead and look around in his backyard. He could have slammed the door in my face, he could have refused to allow the search, but that surely would have focused suspicion on him. He must have hoped I wouldn’t look too hard and just move on to the next house.
And indeed I went perfunctorily through the motions as I went about peering into the crawl spaces under the house and lifting the lids on trash cans, all the while expecting at any moment to be notified the girl had been found. And then I lifted the lid on another trash can —
And there she was.
She was in a fetal position, with her hands under her chin and her knees tucked into her chest. Her blouse had a floral-print pattern and her pants were light blue. And she had no shoes on, a detail that has oddly remained with me all these years. At first she looked to be sleeping, and my initial thought was that she was hiding and merely pretending to be asleep, for who could sleep all curled up in a trash can as she was?
But of course she was not asleep. The man who had answered the door, I would soon learn, had sexually assaulted and killed her before putting her there in the trash can. He at first denied it, as most of them do, but faced with the abundant evidence against him he confessed to detectives and later pleaded guilty to the crime. This being Los Angeles, it’s fair to assume he’s out of prison by now.
That poor little girl in the trash can would be in her mid-30s today, perhaps with children of her own. She came to mind as the Casey Anthony trial drew to its unfortunate conclusion last week. I hadn’t paid much attention to the trial. I’m fascinated by crime but I get enough of it at work, so there’s no need to invite descriptions of it into my living room. But if you watched the news at all in the last few weeks it was impossible to avoid mention of the case, and like most people I always assumed Anthony had killed her daughter Caylee, either deliberately or by accident.
Also like most people, I assumed Anthony would be convicted and perhaps even sentenced to death. I even thought, given that the crime occurred in Florida and not California, where more death-row inmates die of natural causes than by lethal injection, that Anthony might actually be put to death, to my mind a fitting end for anyone, parent or not, who takes the life of a defenseless child.
But instead she’ll soon walk out of jail, convicted of nothing more than lying to the police during their investigation. A wholly unsatisfying outcome and to most observers an unjust one.
When the murderer of that ten-year-old girl was allowed to plead guilty and avoid a death sentence, I was surprised and disappointed. Again, I hadn’t been a cop all that long and was still learning how things worked at the Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles. Why, I asked, with all the evidence against the killer, with even a confession to the crime, didn’t the district attorney’s office take the case to trial and go for a death sentence?
A homicide detective assigned to the case took the time to offer me some schooling. Yes, he said, he had obtained a confession and there was abundant forensic evidence implicating the accused. And if the case had gone to trial, the prosecution may well have prevailed, even in obtaining a death sentence. But this was far from a certainty, especially, as the world would learn years later in the O.J. Simpson trial, in downtown Los Angeles.
To begin with, the detective explained, the defense would challenge my search of the backyard and trash can. I of course had no search warrant, and if the girl’s body and all the forensic evidence that accompanied it had been excluded due to an illegal search, the entire case would fall apart. Even the confession might have been excluded as having arisen from an unlawful search.
“But he gave me consent,” I protested. Yes, said the detective, but he and his lawyer would have claimed I had lied about obtaining the man’s permission to search his yard. Certainly a man facing the death penalty for having killed a child would not be above lying about the circumstances of his arrest.
And there were other reservations about taking the case to trial. The defendant would likely claim the little girl had come on to him, an appalling lie of course but one that child predators often tell. Would the girl’s parents be willing to sit through a lengthy trial and listen to such filth being said about her?
I’ve always disdained the term “closure” when used in these circumstances. For a murder victim’s family there is never closure. Never. But if the parents wished to spared the ordeal of a trial and an uncertain outcome, who was I to object? All things considered, a guilty plea with the guarantee of a long prison sentence was a satisfactory outcome.
But even after all this time, it doesn’t feel that way to me.
I mention this case from so long ago only because it so clearly illustrated for me the perils of taking a case to trial, even one so flush with incriminating evidence and seemingly winnable for the prosecution. When you put a case before a jury, you just never know.
The evidence against Casey Anthony has been examined to exhaustion elsewhere and I need not further exhaust it here. Reluctant and even ashamed as I may be, I am inclined to agree with the jurors who acquitted her, and with Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, who in the July 7 Wall Street Journal wrote:
Even if it is “likely” or “probable” that a defendant committed the murder, he must be acquitted, because neither likely nor probable satisfies the daunting standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, a legally proper result — acquittal in such a case — may not be the same as a morally just result. In such a case, justice has not been done to the victim, but the law has prevailed.
It is more than “likely” or “probable” that Casey Anthony killed her daughter, for indeed there is simply no other plausible explanation for the little girl’s death. But as Dershowitz and others have pointed out, unequivocal evidence linking Casey Anthony to Caylee’s death was lacking, most importantly any evidence of exactly how Casey died. Time and the elements conspired to deny the discovery of any forensic evidence that might once have been present where Casey’s body was found. More’s the pity, but it is — and must be — difficult to convict someone of murder when it can’t be shown that a murder has in fact occurred.
So we are left with a situation reminiscent of Professor Dershowitz’s infamous accomplishment, the acquittal of O.J. Simpson. But unlike in the Simpson case, in which abundant evidence was lawyered away before a blinkered jury, an attentive and open-minded jury waited for the evidence against Casey Anthony that was never presented. They were true to their oath and to the law when they voted to acquit.
But it still feels rotten.
Anyone with a scrap of sense knows Casey Anthony killed Caylee just as he knows O.J. Simpson killed Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. We may not like the jury’s decision, we just have to live with it. Maybe she’ll pull a robbery in Las Vegas someday.