The Journal‎ > ‎

Burdens of Proof and the Casey Anthony Verdict

posted Jul 5, 2011, 9:15 PM by Anthony Severin   [ updated Jul 5, 2011, 9:36 PM ]

I’m an extemper. I read real news and skip the gossip. So whenever my Google News feed kept popping up with some new development in the Casey Anthony trial, I dutifully ignored it. Until this afternoon when my Facebook news page went bananas.

After reading over the facts of the case (ABC News had a good summary), the essential point I was left with was this: although it was fairly clear from Anthony’s own conduct before and after the trial that she did indeed murder her daughter, the only evidence the prosecution could bring forth was circumstantial. For instance, the prosecution noted that Anthony’s computer had accessed a website on how to make chloroform over 80 times. Some evidence pointed to the baby being chloroformed. Coincidence? Witnesses testified her car’s trunk stank—indicating, perhaps, the body had been kept in the trunk until being disposed of. Coincidence? Casey’s demeanor in the 30 day period after the baby died (but before the homicide was discovered) was far from mournful—she apparently partied and even got a tattoo of the words “bella vita” (beautiful life) on her arm. Coincidence?

The depressing picture of a mother who just lost her daughter Casey Anthony is not.  And yet, the jury said she was not guilty of murder. Why?

It’s all about burdens of proof. All of the circumstantial evidence pointing to Anthony was not enough to prove to the jury that it was beyond a reasonable doubt that she killed her daughter, which is the burden of proof the law sets for criminal cases. Recognizing that the prosecution had not fulfilled this burden of proof, the jury returned the verdict of not guilty.


Presumption, Solvency, and Vigilance

One of the principles of debate theory is that of presumption—the principle that, if the debate round never happened, the judge should vote negative. In common terms, the affirmative has the burden of proof—they must prove a given change is justified. Just like a prosecutor must prove his case in a court of law, so must an affirmative team prove their case to be true.

However, the negative has burdens to prove as well. If they read off a disadvantage, it’s their burden to prove it.

Many times though, debaters ignore basic burdens. For instance, I debated a case last year that would bring foreign exchange students to the U.S.. It was early in the year, and we had zero evidence against the case. We ran a solvency argument saying that there wouldn’t be enough people willing to take in foreign exchange students due to the faltering economy—there simply wouldn’t be enough host homes. The aff responded that we hadn’t provided evidence saying there wouldn’t be enough host homes. Then, in my 1NR, I pointed out that the burden was on the aff to prove there were enough host homes—something that, at that point in the season, they couldn’t do. We won on that issue strictly because we were able to set it up as a burden the aff absolutely needed to fulfill.

Commonly, solvency is left to the negative to prove otherwise. I watched a round at nationals where the affirmative literally tried to put the burden on the negative to prove the plan wouldn’t work. Had the negative not recognized this and stated it clearly, I think the round would’ve turned out a lot differently.

It pays to be vigilant. Read that solvency card—does it really say what the aff says it said? And if not, what other reason do we have to believe it, if any? And if there aren't any, why are we considering the aff plan?

One side of this coin is to know what burdens exist and recognize when they’re not met. The other is to clearly point those burdens out to the judge. A judge that knows exactly what needs to be decided is a happy judge. If I say “we should go to McDonalds”,  and you point out that I need to prove Micky D’s is actually open, then we have a clear question that the judge can look at and answer based on his flow, rather than having to puzzle through the arguments himself: “Is McDonalds open?”. It’s a simple yes or no question that may be answered by a glance at the judge’s flow. 


Anthony’s defense was spectacular in that they ensured the jury knew what they needed to decide in order to convict. Her defense lawyers were successful by making it clear that unless some specific (that is, non-circumstantial evidence) linking Anthony to the murder was brought forth, she should be exonerated. Burdens in the debate round deserve the same prominence-- both because of the clarity they bring to the judge and because they'll help you focus your arguments where they're needed most. 

Anthony's note: yes, it felt very weird to constantly reference Anthony killing her daughter.