Why ‘Caylee’s Law’ Is A Bad Idea

Within minutes of the Casey Anthony verdict, much of America devolved into the mass media equivalent of a mob bearing torches and pitchforks. Twitter lit up with calls for vigilante justice, and proposals that we revoke the Fifth Amendment’s protection against double jeopardy (or at least that we revoke it for Casey Anthony). Nancy Grace nearly spit fire, proclaiming, “The devil is dancing tonight.” Conservative syndicated columnist Ben Shapiro wants to change the jury system entirely.

Even as DNA testing continues to exonerate wrongly convicted people, including people who were nearly executed, it’s this rare case — in which a jury recognized that there was no physical evidence linking Anthony to her daughter’s murder — that has America questioning its justice system.

High-profile trials are anomalies. They’re about as far from the day-to-day goings on in police precincts, courtrooms, and prisons as your typical TV crime drama (the other place Americans get most of their (bad) information about the criminal justice system). Despite what much of the public seems to have taken away from these sorts of trials in recent years, the average person wrongly accused of a crime isn’t a wealthy college lacrosse player with top-notch legal representation. Prosecutors who wrongly charge people aren’t usually stripped of their law license or criminally sanctioned. (In fact, they’re rarely sanctioned at all.) Black men accused of murder aren’t typically represented by “dream teams” of the country’s best defense attorneys. And, believe it or not, if there’s a problem in the criminal justice system when it comes to children, it’s that parents and caretakers are too often overcharged in accidental deaths or as a result of bogus allegations, not that they regularly get away with murder.

Even more regrettable is that every time a Casey Anthony-type trial captures the public’s attention, someone gets the idea that we need a new law in response to the completely unrepresentative case, a law that presumably would have prevented that particularly travesty from happening. The problem, of course, is that the new law — usually poorly written and passed in a fit of hysteria — is too late to apply to the case it was designed for. But it does then apply to everyone else.

Laws named after crime victims and dead people are usually a bad idea. They play more to emotion than reason. But they’re disturbingly predictable, especially when they come after the death of a child. So it’s really no surprise that activist Michelle Crowder is now pushing “Caylee’s Law,” a proposed federal bill that would charge parents with a felony if they fail to report a missing child within 24 hours, or if they fail to report the death of a child within an hour. What’s surprising is just how quickly the Change.org petition for Caylee’s Law has gone viral. As of this writing it has more than 700,000 signatures, and is now the most successful campaign in the site’s history. For reasons of constitutionality and practicality, it seems unlikely that Caylee’s Law will ever be realized at the federal level. But according to the AP, at least sixteen state legislatures are now considering some version of the law. That’s troubling.

This is a bad way to make public policy. In an interview with CNN, Crowder concedes that she didn’t consult with a single law enforcement official before coming up with her 24-hour and 1-hour limits. This raises some questions. How did she come up with those cutoffs? Did she consult with any grief counselors to see if there may be innocuous reasons why an innocent person who just witnessed a child’s death might not immediately report it, such as shock, passing out, or some other sort of mental breakdown? Did she consult with a forensic pathologist to see if it’s even possible to pin down the time of death with the sort of precision you’d need to make Caylee’s Law enforceable? Have any of the lawmakers who have proposed or are planning to propose this law actually consulted with anyone with some knowledge of these issues?

Jamie Downs is the Coastal Regional Medical Examiner for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and co-editor of a forthcoming book on forensic ethics about Caylee’s Law. Downs also formerly served on the board of directors for the National Association of Medical Examiners. Contrary to what you may have learned from watching CSI, Downs says, there’s no way for a medical examiner to determine time of death in the sort of narrow window that would be necessary to enforce Caylee’s Law. “I understand that people are outraged, and I understand why they’d want a law like this, but I just don’t think it’s a good idea. I don’t see how you would enforce it,” Downs says. “You just can’t say for certain that a person died an hour and five minutes ago as opposed to 45 minutes ago.”

If medical science can’t pinpoint the time of the child’s death to the minute, how else are authorities going to determine it? They can’t ask the parent. A guilty person isn’t going to give you an honest answer, and even an innocent parent may lie if they fear the truth could land them in prison. It also seems safe to assume that a parent’s first instinct upon witnessing the death of a child isn’t to look up at the clock to take note of an official time of death.

Certainly it’s easy to distinguish a body that’s been dead for less than hour from one that has been dead for six or seven. Presumably, Crowder and the lawmakers supporting this bill put the cutoff at one hour to prevent someone who intentionally or accidentally kills a child from having time to cover up what happened. But if that’s the justification, it’s all the more important that a forensic pathologist be able to nail down the time of death to the minute. And that just isn’t possible.

There are myriad other problems with the one-hour requirement. What if a child dies while sleeping? When would you start the clock on the parent’s one-hour window to report? From the time the parent discovers the child is dead, or from the time the child actually dies? If it’s the former, can you really believe what a parent tells you if he knows a felony charge hinges on his answer? What if a parent or babysitter missed the deadline because she fell asleep at the time the child was playing outside and suffered a fatal accident? You could argue this is evidence of bad parenting or inattentive babysitting, but under those circumstances, do you really want to charge a grieving parent or heartbroken babysitter with a felony?

The portion of the bill that requires a parent to report a missing child within 24 hours is just as fraught with problems. When does that clock start? From the time the child actually gets abducted, gets lost, or is somehow killed, or at the time the parents noticed the child was missing? How do you pinpoint the time that they “noticed”? When teenager Rosie Larsen is abducted and murdered in the new AMC drama The Killing, it takes two days for her parents to notice she’s missing. They thought she was spending the night at a friend’s house, and she and her friends often rotated sleeping over at one another’s homes on the weekends. The Killing is fiction, but this isn’t an implausible scenario. Again, are we really so angry about the Casey Anthony verdict that we’re prepared to charge grieving parents with a felony because it takes them longer than some arbitrary deadline to notice their child is missing?

The law and the attention it attracts could also cause problems of overcompliance. How many parents will notify the authorities with false reports within an hour or two, out of fear of becoming suspects? How many such calls and wasted police resources on false alarms will it take before police grow jaded and begin taking note of missing child reports, but don’t bother investigating them until much later? How many legitimate abductions will then go uninvestigated during the critical first few hours because they were lost in the pile of false reports inspired by Caylee’s Law?

It isn’t difficult to come up with other scenarios where innocent people may get ensnared in Caylee’s Law.

Here’s another: You’re camping with your family when your son goes missing. One of your other children says she last saw him swimming in a lake. You spend several hours frantically looking for him before discovering that, tragically, he has drowned. You call the police. Under Caylee’s Law, is this a “missing child” case, or a “dead child” case? Do you get charged with a felony for not notifying authorities within an hour of your son’s drowning, or are you afforded the 24-hour window from the time you noticed he went missing? Is this really the sort of thing we want parents to be considering while they’re trying to find their child? What if your kid gets lost hiking on a camping trip where there’s no cell phone reception? It could take a few hours to notice your kid is missing, another few to look for him before you begin to panic. In some cases, it may be best to keep looking than to abandon the area to notify authorities.

The counter to these hypotheticals is that a prosecutor wouldn’t charge grieving parents under those circumstances. But why give them the option? Sure, it may be difficult to conceive of a prosecutor charging good parents who bear zero blame in a child’s death, but it’s not hard to envision a prosecutor using the notification requirements to punish parents or guardians who make subjectively poor decisions that aren’t otherwise crimes. Why were you letting your kid swim in the lake unsupervised in the first place? Maybe the babysitter bears no blame for the SIDS death of the infant she was watching, but it took her two hours to notice the baby had died in his sleep because she was napping off a hangover, or making out with her boyfriend downstairs. If you find it doubtful that a prosecutor could be so vindictive, look at Mississippi and Alabama, where women who have had miscarriages are being charged with murder.

While Caylee’s Law could quite conceivably ensnare innocent grieving parents, it seems unlikely that it will prevent a single child’s death. Consider: Is a father who is depraved enough to kill his own son really going to be dissuaded by a law that says he must notify the authorities of his son’s death within an hour of having killed him? He’s already committing murder. The law isn’t likely to affect a parent who kills a child in a fit of anger or rage, either. By definition, crimes of passion are perpetrated in the heat of the moment, with little consideration of consequences.

The law will have at least one effect that Crowder and her supporters intend. Crowder’s petition letter expresses her hope that once the law is passed, “no more innocent children will have to go without justice.” And she’s right. Caylee’s Law provides another way for prosecutors to convict a suspected parent or guardian of something, even if they don’t have the evidence to prove the actual murder. Florida state Rep. Scott Plakon, sponsor of the bill in his state, told the AP, “God forbid we ever run into a mother like Casey Anthony again. If we do, that mother will be a felon.” I suspect this is why so many people have signed Crowder’s petition. This is about vengeance. They’re angry at this verdict.

That anger is understandable. But anger is a bad reason to make public policy. New laws, especially laws with serious criminal sanctions, demand careful consideration: Will the law actually address the problem it is intended to address? Is it enforceable? What are some possible unintended consequences of this law? Could it be abused by police and prosecutors?

Laws named after the victims of brutal crimes make it difficult to ask these questions, especially for politicians, who aren’t exactly known for taking bold stands against an angry public. When you put Caylee Anthony’s name on a bill, you imply that anyone who opposes the bill — even for good reasons — is indifferent to the death of its namesake, or at least isn’t as concerned about it as you think they ought to be. That’s not a formula for an honest discussion of the bill’s merits.

In a country of 308 million people, bad things are going to happen. We already have laws against murder, child abuse, and child neglect. When you pass laws that make it easier to imprison people in cases where the state doesn’t have enough evidence to prove the crime everyone knows they’re actually prosecuting, you undermine the integrity of the justice system. The “flaw” that led to the Casey Anthony verdict is pretty straightforward: The state failed to prove its case. And the government must prove its case, even when all of America is 100 percent certain of the defendant’s guilt, because we want to be sure the state will always also have to prove its case when we aren’t so certain.

Of course, there’s another reason we go through the formality of a trial before throwing someone in prison, even in “slam-dunk” cases like this one. Sometimes, even when Nancy Grace herself is completely sure that the bastards are guilty, we later discover that she was wrong.

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