In the aftermath of the Casey Anthony verdict, jury-bashing is back in style -- ironically, just as a new documentary is showing how one of the most criticized verdicts in history was misunderstood.
I'm among those displeased with the outcome of the Anthony case. I paid fairly close attention and believed that the Florida mother played a significant role in the death of her daughter. But that doesn't mean I disagree with the verdict.
Since it was announced Tuesday, I have heard incessant expressions of disbelief that the jury found Anthony "innocent." Only, it didn't. The jury found her not guilty, which is different. The jury's role is to determine whether the prosecution proved guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. And in the Anthony case, the jury concluded that the prosecution did not. That doesn't equate to innocence.
The case was heavy on drama and salaciousness -- Casey Anthony's "hot body" contest, her tattoo, her father's alleged affair -- but light on forensics such as fingerprints and DNA. In his closing statement, defense lawyer Jose Baez stressed that the prosecution's puzzle was missing a piece -- namely, an explanation of how, when, or where Caylee Anthony died.
A day later, those sentiments were echoed by the lead prosecutor, Jeff Ashton, during an appearance on the "Today" show. This able attorney was clearly disappointed, as well as candid in his assessment of the case. Matt Lauer asked him, "Do you think we'll ever know what happened to Caylee Anthony?" Ashton replied: "No, we never will, we never will. Even if Casey got out of jail and wrote a book and said it, I don't know that any of us would really know if we could believe it or not."
If the prosecutor wasn't sure what happened to Caylee, how could a jury be expected to determine beyond a reasonable doubt that Casey killed her? In the end, the burden of proof was met only in cable-TV studios presided over by the likes of Nancy Grace, not in the courtroom of Judge Belvin Perry.
For that reason, the Anthony case is not an embarrassment to our justice system.
Nor was the McDonald's coffee case.
Casey Anthony, meet Stella Liebeck. Certainly you remember when that senior citizen recklessly drove away from a McDonald's with hot coffee between her legs, spilled it on her lap, and turned it into a multimillion-dollar payday?
Or so we were led to believe. But the documentary "Hot Coffee" tells a different and more complete story. (Full disclosure: The film's director and producer, Susan Saladoff, is a lawyer, and I maintain an affiliation with the law firm of Kline & Specter.)
Though "Hot Coffee" has attracted plenty of attention since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, I wasn't surprised by the story it tells. Back in 1995, while working at the old WWDB-AM radio, I interviewed a daughter and son-in-law of the plaintiff. Liebeck herself had signed a confidentiality agreement, but it did not extend to her kin, who had attended the trial, read the briefs, and knew it cold. I recently listened to a tape of the interview.
"It went out over the (Associated Press) wire that she was driving with coffee between her legs, and from then on, it seemed that was the only thing people heard," Judy Allen, the daughter, told me.
Only, for starters, the car was not moving. Liebeck, 79 at the time of the incident, was not driving. And she was not a litigious person.
"No one in our family had ever sued anyone," Allen told me.
She said her nephew, Liebeck's grandson, was driving. They had just taken a relative to the airport in their hometown, Albuquerque, N.M., and on the way home they stopped at a McDonald's drive-through. The car had no cup holder and a sloped dashboard, so Liebeck insisted that her grandson pull over in the McDonald's lot while she added cream and sugar. She steadied the cup between her knees, but as she removed the lid, the entire cup spilled in her lap, causing third-degree burns.
"My mother started to go into shock," Allen told me. "She was in pretty bad shape and suffering tremendously."
Liebeck was hospitalized for six days. On discharge, she required 24-hour care and, due to the severity of her burns, fainted while undergoing whirlpool therapy. She had to endure debridement -- the cutting away of burned tissue -- before being readmitted for skin grafting, which required another hospital stay of two days. Doctors removed skin from the outside of her thighs and grafted it to the inside of her thighs and her buttocks. Photographs of the injury shown in "Hot Coffee" are downright horrific.
"I was concerned she wasn't going to make it," her daughter told me.
What swayed the jury was evidence that McDonald's had already gotten more than 700 complaints of injuries from its coffee, which was then served at temperatures of 180 to 190 degrees, higher than the industry standard. Liebeck and other customers had no way of knowing that.
"If you spill, the most you should expect is that you will mess up an outfit, (it will) cause you to say 'ouch' and maybe give you red skin -- not ... put you in the hospital and give you lifelong scars," Allen said.
McDonald's probably could have settled the case for $20,000, but it chose not to. After a weeklong trial, a jury of 12 unanimously found McDonald's liable and assessed damages not only to compensate Liebeck for her injuries (in the amount of $200,000, less 20 percent for her contributory negligence), but also to punish McDonald's given its knowledge of the danger posed by its exceedingly hot coffee. The jury determined the punitive damages by calculating how much McDonald's makes from coffee sales in two days, which ended up being $2.7 million. The judge reduced that award to three times the compensatory damages, making Liebeck's total award roughly $640,000.
Hardly the multimillion-dollar manipulation of the jury system that the case has since been made out to be. Hence the need for a documentary like "Hot Coffee."
We've all seen cases in which the punishment doesn't fit the crime. But, as Casey Anthony and Stella Liebeck have proven, sometimes the jury-bashing and television prognosticating don't fit, either.
Michael Smerconish writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.