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December 11, 2009

Death penalty debate taking center stage in (in)famous Casey Anthony case

This new CNN story, which is headlined "Casey Anthony's lawyer argues against death penalty for client," reports on the notable sentencing issue taking center stage in a high-profile Florida murder case.  Here are excerpts:

A year after the remains of a Florida toddler were discovered, a lawyer for the slain child's mother asked a judge Friday to stop prosecutors from seeking the death penalty against her.

Lawyer Andrea Lyon told Orange County Circuit Court Judge Stan Strickland that the "real reason" prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Casey Anthony is because they want to "get as biased a jury as they possibly can." Lyon said a jury that is qualified to serve in a death penalty case is more likely to convict defendants.

But prosecutor Jeff Ashton told the court that the state is not seeking the death penalty; rather, the jury and judge will decide whether it is appropriate. Anthony has pleaded not guilty to murder in the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee....

Ashton said the death penalty question is not for the prosecution to answer. "Everyone who is indicted by a grand jury in the state of Florida for the crime of first-degree murder is eligible for the death penalty," he said. "The decision by the prosecutor is simply, should a jury, and ultimately, a judge, be allowed to make this decision?"

Further explaining why he believed the case was eligible for the death penalty, Ashton speculated what jurors might infer from the facts presented to them. He suggested that Caylee's killer may have either given the toddler a substance to knock her unconscious before applying duct tape to her mouth and nose, or had physically restrained her before doing so....

In her argument, the defense attorney noted the toddler's undetermined manner of death, saying that the death penalty infringes on Anthony's constitutional rights. "They cannot be seeking the death penalty in good faith because there is insufficient evidence ... to establish first-degree murder," she argued.

December 11, 2009 at 08:49 PM | Permalink


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Isn't the reason for seeking death on skimpy first-degree murder evidence to extort a plea bargain?

Posted by: George | Dec 12, 2009 1:28:06 AM

that worked for Andrea Pia Yates in Tx

Posted by: claudio giusti, italia | Dec 12, 2009 2:53:17 AM

"Lawyer Andrea Lyon told Orange County Circuit Court Judge Stan Strickland that the 'real reason' prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Casey Anthony is because they want to 'get as biased a jury as they possibly can.'"

Ummmmmm, well, let's see. Maybe, just maybe, it's because the proseutor thinks the death penalty could be fitting for a mother who murders her defenseless child and dumps her body in the swamp.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 12, 2009 11:26:42 AM

This is not some novel argument by the defense counsel, of course. Every good defense lawyer will preserve the argument that death-qualifying the jury before the guilt-innocence phase violates the right to an impartial jury (even though the case law is bad on this point).

Incidentally, that case law is probably the least justifiable in this whole wobegotten area of doctrine. Jurors' ability to impose a death sentence is irrelevant to the factual determination of guilt or innocence, and empirical studies show that those who can pass the Witherspoon test are willing to convict on less evidence than those who can't. Not only does this lead to *less* reliable findings of guilt in cases where we should have the *most* reliable findings, it also creates perverse incentives for prosecutors to overcharge cases with shaky evidence because it will be easier to convict for capital murder than "straight" murder. The only rationale I can think of for not requiring a bifurcated jury in capital trials (which would not be too burdensome, since both juries could be picked based on the same voir dire) is the old Brennan chestnut of "fear of too much justice."

Posted by: Anon | Dec 14, 2009 12:38:16 PM

Anon --

Doctrinaire opponents of the death penalty come hell or high water are not ideally suited to judge the specific circumstances in which it should be sought.

In this case case of child murder, compounded by a long-running and incredibly cynical public fraud, there is easily an adequate, objective basis for the prosecutor to seek the DP.

I am tempted to think that your underlying objection to his seeking it is not that it's inappropriate to the facts of the case, but that he stands a decent chance of getting it.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 15, 2009 10:12:27 PM

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