By Chloe Sarnoff
Homespun homilies such as “whatever comes around goes around,” or “don’t worry, things have a way of working themselves out,” often come across as meaningless or trite. Sometime, however, what sounded like a banality can end up ringing very true.
Several weeks ago, Casey Anthony was acquitted of murdering her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee. Most people believed that she was guilty and were surprised by the verdict. Very likely Ms. Anthony was surprised, too. But to those furious members of the public who watched as a dangerous and negligent mother got away with murder (or at the very least manslaughter), we can all take at least small comfort in saying, “don’t worry, things will work themselves out.”
The justice system may have found Casey Anthony not guilty of pre-meditated murder, but Ms. Anthony has yet to receive the full force and effect of society’s verdict. She is now left with the terrifying and difficult question of “what now?” What does a woman, whose face was plastered on the cover of every tabloid magazine, newspaper and TV show for murdering her innocent 2 year-old toddler, do with the rest of her life? How does she ever find her way back into mainstream society? In fact, if Ms. Anthony did a little research into what frequently happens to defendants in highly publicized and infamous trials when they are found acquitted, she might be even more nervous than she presumably already is. She might even asked to be locked up.
Casey Anthony is not the only person to have successfully escaped punishment from the law, but she now finds herself in good company among other celebrity fugitives, acquitted of their crimes by the law but found irredeemably guilty by the moral outrage of society. For example, when O.J. Simpson entered a Kentucky steakhouse, owned by Jeff Ruby, Mr. Ruby refused to serve him. After being publicly humiliated in the crowded restaurant, O.J. was given little choice but to leave and eat elsewhere. This one instance pales in comparison to the life of ridicule that O.J. has led since he was acquitted. From the moment the jury reached its verdict, O.J. Simpson has been an outcast from society. This alienation and scrutiny was made even worse when he found himself in a civil lawsuit brought in 1997 by one of his victims’ families.
Sometimes it’s not even necessary for the law to acquit before the punishing glare from society’s judgment intercedes, sending its own message of revulsion and disgust. When Ruth Madoff went off to get her hair done at Pierre Michel, the tony Upper East Side salon where she had been a client for roughly ten years, she was told : “you’re no longer welcome here.” Even though Mrs. Madoff was not charged with a crime, and was left with $2.5 million after $80 million of her assets were linked to fraud, society still thought she had a price to pay. Mrs. Madoff’s embarrassing exit from her hair salon is undoubtedly only one of the many punishments society has in store for her and the rest of her family (sadly already felt by the suicide of her eldest son), including those not behind bars.
Even if the seemingly impossible happens, and someone steps forward to confess to having murdered Ms. Anthony’s baby, her outlook is still grim. When your name has been dragged through the dirt of a scandalous trial, innocent or guilty, there is no escaping what society has in store for you. Steven J. Hatfill learned this the hard way when then Attorney General John Ashcroft declared Hatfill a person of interest in the 2001 anthrax attacks. Mr. Hatfill worked for the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases when FBI agents searched his home and interviewed his co-workers and neighbors. Countless articles were written in major publications discussing the possible reasons why Mr. Hatfill was considered a suspect. Even when the actual anthrax killer, scientist Bruce Ivins, was convicted and Mr. Hatfill sued the government for damages and was awarded $5.8 million, he still was not assured that he would be accepted by society. “For Hatfill, rebuilding remains painful and slow,” according to David Freed at The Atlantic, “He enters post offices only if he absolutely must, careful to show his face to surveillance cameras so that he can’t be accused of mailing letters surreptitiously.”
Although O.J., Madoff and the anthrax suspect may have little in common with Casey Anthony’s alleged crime, the thread that holds them together is that they have had to, and will continue to, deal with society’s judgment and punishment long after the juries’ verdicts are delivered. This comes in the form of shame, embarrassment and disgust. Members of Ms. Anthony’s community may never accept her back again; they may ask her to leave their establishments, not wanting their other customers to be subjected to her presence. She likely has already lost the support and comfort of friends and family who are too ashamed to be seen with her in public. She may be too humiliated to walk to the end of her driveway to pick up her newspaper, afraid of the horrible things her neighbors might say to her.
In the extremes, shame, guilt and humiliation can make people do terrible and drastic things. When a person is pushed to the outskirts of society, and there seems little chance of ever being accepted again, a person could think their life is no longer worth living. This is certainly what happened to Bernard Madoff’s son, Mark. In December 2010, Mark Madoff was found dead in his apartment from a suicide, having hung himself while his wife was out of town and his young son was asleep in a nearby bedroom. Although no suicide note was found, the public can assume that Mark’s desperate and deadly decision was connected to the two-year anniversary of his father’s arrest and his family’s public humiliation.
There is no way to fully predict what ultimately will happen to Ms. Anthony. We do not know how long she will live, how she will support herself or how she will spend the rest of her days. We may not understand how our justice system could have failed to punish such a dangerous, callous woman, but one thing is for sure: Casey Anthony will never be innocent in our eyes. The general public may not have the power to put her behind bars, as that decision was left to the jury. And it may not ultimately be as satisfying as a true legal punishment. But society does possess incredibly powerful tools to cast its own judgment of moral guilt: the ability to shame, alienate, and outcast. As Ms. Anthony will come to learn, these social afflictions can feel just as debilitating as prison bars.