Guilty but “Not Guilty:” Why Jurors Acquit Criminals and What This Tells Us About Knowledge

In a verdict reminiscent of the O.J. Simpson case, many were outraged in the summer of 2011 when an Orlando jury found Casey Anthony not guilty of her toddler’s murder. But why? Twelve people just like you and me pre-screened by both prosecution and defense w

ere there for every minute of the trial. They were the only audience the lawyers cared about. Everything was thrown at them; every piece of evidence and every defense. Regardless of what we all saw in the media, they saw more and analyzed it tirelessly. At least one juror c


that the cause of death was indeterminate so blaming someone for an unknown action leading to the death leaves a logical gap. In other words, it’s certain Caylee died, but not that she was murdered. If “murder” itself is uncertain, assigning blame to it would have been as well. Certainty, according to this juror, is what was missing.

Admittedly, I watched almost no coverage of the trial or commentary by the media. I have enough cases to follow during the work day that court drama is the last place I go for thrills. From my experience in criminal investigations, I understand what a standard of proof is. The jurors were operating on the highest standard – “beyond a reasonable doubt.” So, the question is, “Can the jurors know that Casey Anthony killed her daughter yet still find her ‘not guilty’ in a criminal trial?” I think many of them did exactly that. To see this, we must understand two things: 1) what is knowledge and 2) what standard of proof is accepted in court. 

1)      Knowledge

What does it mean to “know” something? When approaching any given proposition, we start by judging it to be either true or false based on the information at hand. When someone believes an idea or claim is 50% likely to be true and 50% likely to be false, they are agnostic to that proposition. However, most propositions don’t find themselves so squarely fixed in agnosticism between belief and non-belief. Whatever the idea at issue happens to be, we usually have already formed a belief about its truthfulness of varying degrees of certainty. As we investigate, we become aware of evidence or reasons for or against an idea. As this happens, the scales tip toward one direction or the other forming a belief that the proposition is either true or false with greater confidence than when we started.

Belief by itself isn’t the same thing as knowledge. Yet our beliefs can develop into knowledge when we discover good reasons in support or defeat of the subject of those beliefs. One could say they have a belief about something without proper justification. For example, my former graduate school professor J.P. Moreland likes to say he believes the Kansas City Chiefs will win the Superbowl next season (regardless of how poorly his team is playing at the time). But he concedes he doesn’t know they will. Knowing something is not only a belief but one that is justified by reasons or evidence. Knowledge, as Dr. Moreland defines it, is “justified true belief.” Anyone can say he believes in just about anything he wants to. However, if Dr. Moreland was to claim to know that the Chiefs are scheduled to play the Buffalo Bills for their opening home game because he saw their schedule last night on ESPN, it would be knowledge based on a justified true belief. Another point of clarity is that knowing something intellectually is different than knowing something with emotional or psychological certainty. These are two different uses of the term altogether. Moreland can say “I just know the Chiefs are going to the game!” but that psychological confidence doesn’t translate to objectively knowing anything about the future outcome of the game. Reality confirms our beliefs but it exists independent from them.

2)      Standard of Proof

As I mentioned earlier, it’s not enough to know – or have justified belief – that a suspect is guilty. For courts to act, there must be knowledge to a certain degree. To see how different it is from the real world inside a criminal courtroom, consider the illustration of a typical case I deal with:

A patrol officer stopped a vehicle for running a red light. The officer made a legal search the car which revealed a 20-pound bundle of drugs in the trunk. The officer was fair to the suspects and thorough in his investigation which led him to believe the suspects were transporting illegal drugs for sale – a felony offense. When he read the suspects their “Miranda Rights” against self-incrimination, both decided not to speak and no admissions were made. Later both suspects were indicted by a grand jury in confirmation that the officer met the required standard of proof – “Probable Cause.” Probable cause has been judicially described as “the factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reasonable and prudent men, not legal technicians, act” (Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160175 . 1949).

While the standard for officer’s arrest was met, the burden is much greater for the prosecutor. The prosecutor knows that the case could end up in a jury trial. A jury needs more than simply to know that the defendant is guilty to issue a guilty verdict, but that no alternative theory is even reasonable. If key witnesses aren’t reliable, if jurors lack confidence in the evidence, if the prosecution’s presentation is unclear, or if a reasonable alternative explanation is presented by the defense, a jury can’t convict. This is why investigators work every case by gathering an overwhelming amount of evidence before presenting it for prosecution. We start cases as though they all go to trial.

The public outcry over the Anthony acquittal is understandable when we may be justified in believing she’s guilty. So why does our criminal justice system allow this? Criminal courts hold to such a high epistemological standard because we value mercy over justice. Both mercy and justice are important, but the wrongful conviction of an innocent man is deemed by our culture to be a greater evil than the good that comes from rightfully condemning a guilty man. So when we talk about whether or not we can know Casey Anthony killed her little girl, we must remove ourselves from the justice system vacuum the jurors found themselves in and remember that our knowledge about important facts doesn’t require such a standard. In fact, I believe it was possible for every single juror on that case to know Casey was guilty of murder but were bound by the rules of judicial procedure to issue the vote of “not guilty.” This was not a vote of their knowledge or even their psychological confidence, but a vote on whether the high standard was met beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s why it’s unfair to ridicule the jurors in the Anthony trial. Sure, they might have been wrong. Perhaps the high standard was met. But whether or not they properly interpreted the standard is irrelevant to whether they know Casey killed Caylee. Believe it or not, they can know she’s guilty even when they voted otherwise.

The application apologists can take from this is to realize we don’t need such a high standard to determine truth. While some have argued the case for Christianity does meet this high standard, we don’t even have to go that far. If we can know truth in matters of everyday life, we can know truth in other matters. This goes for boarding an airplane, eating a sandwich, or crossing the street. And if we don’t need to believe “beyond a reasonable doubt” for these important questions, we don’t need it to make religious decisions either.

Posted by Dan Grossenbach


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  1. zilch says:

    Is this you, al? You should really put names on all posts, so we know whom we’re addressing.

    I agree with just about everything here, especially your analysis of how a juror can believe in the guilt of the defendant but still move to acquit, because of valuing mercy over justice. That’s exactly my viewpoint. Who says there’s no common ground between theists and atheists?

    The only point where I suspect my opinion diverges from yours in this case is this: you imply, at least by omission of mention, that there is a fact of the matter in the case of Casey Anthony: either she did or did not kill her daughter. I don’t know the details of the case, but it doesn’t matter: obviously, there is a whole continuum of responsibility for death, from occasional neglected meals or medicines, to spanking, to tossing, to starving…. the list and degree go on and on, with no dividing lines.

    Equally obviously: we must, as a practical matter, make decisions of yes or no, guilty or not, even if we know the world is not black and white. But the recognition that the world is not black and white is, I feel, the basis of mercy over justice.

    cheers from chilly Vienna, zilch

    • Dan says:

      Sorry Zilch. It’s me, Dan Grossenbach, who wrote this one. With the new web design there’s been some changes that I need to keep up on. Thanks for pointing out that my post’s author wasn’t listed and for sharing your thoughts.

  2. zilch says:

    Thanks for putting your name up, Dan. I would be curious if you would care to comment on the one point where I suspect we differ: do you believe that there is a fact of the matter here, that Casey Anthony either was or was not guilty of her daughter’s death, no shades of gray possible, at least in God’s eyes?

    • Dan says:

      Your point has some merit. In determining her guilt more generally, I suppose we could certainly consider her involvement in damaging her daughter in gray terms. However, the case was focused on a particular event that either happened or didn’t. In criminal cases, the charge is very specific naming a particular action (knowingly end the life of another person unjustly) on a particular day (or time period) by a particular person (defendant). Then the prosecution builds their case entirely around that one fact. Not sure we really disagree on this but not sure it really relates to my larger point either. Thanks for the conversation.

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