Almost any criminal trial is going to involve a lurid tale. The author is the government, through its prosecutor. The story is that the defendant killed, or robbed, or assaulted, or conspired. There was a motive, a back story. Moral opprobrium is called for.
We have transcended gender, so we think. But not really.
The government’s tale is almost invariably directed at a man. On rare occasions it is directed at a woman. On even rarer occasions, it is directed at a very attractive woman, and on those occasions it takes on a curious quality: it becomes frenzied, and irresistible.
The short answer is, I’m not sure. If I was, it wouldn’t be so frightening, because there might be a way to address it.
So it’s interesting to see the media take up this issue and wrestle with it a bit. Author Nina Burleigh seems to think that in the Knox case it has something to do with Italy and their “veneration” of the Virgin Mary:
One reason for the focus on “Foxy Knoxy” to the exclusion of the men is the Italian attitude toward women. The story is rooted in a spirituality based in sex and the worship of the female. In Italy, the word “veneration” comes from Venus, goddess of fertility, called in Italian, Venere. The primeval object of “veneration” was the goddess with the power to call forth desire from men, and to make barren women fertile.
So there’s that, then. How would you address something like this in a criminal trial? What sort of questions could you ask prospective jurors during jury selection that might root out this primeval perspective and neutralize it?
The “power to call forth desire from men”. It’s a subtle thing, but I’ve seen it both in life and in the law – the tendency, on a very deep and subconscious level, to find fault with an attractive woman for provoking a man to sin. We are tempted, so she must be a temptress, and the fault is hers. And it isn’t just men who engage in this blame-shifting; in fact it is arguably more prevalent in women.
In reaction to this sub-rational impression, we have witnessed in the last year the advent of the “slut walk“, which makes more sense than it might seem at first blush. The idea seems to be to get the primitive mindset out into the open where it can be discussed and seen for what it is.
It’s dangerous to tap into the primitive impulses of human beings. We are rational creatures most of the time, and up to a point. But when you cross that line it gets dicey. On an aesthetic level, transcending the rational can result in some of the most beautiful human expression, but also some of the most horrifying. Mozart, or The Dead Kennedys. Which will it be? There is often no way to know beforehand. So be careful.
Trials are always morality plays, and morality plays embody this danger – the unleashing of primitive man. It is a step removed from the lynch mob, but there are times this is a difference in degree but not in kind. The black man sitting silently at the defense table who does not testify is found guilty because he appears guilty on a primitive level.
And the temptress deserves what she gets, so she is found guilty as well.
I’m often surprised, even shocked, at how willfully unaware self-styled criminal defense lawyers often seem to be about the morality play aspect of a criminal trial. It’s not about morality, or right or wrong, or truth and falsehood, or good and evil, they say. It’s as if they are in denial that the government is seeking a “verdict” of “guilty”.
I suppose on occasion such a position might effectively change the terms of the debate in your favor, but you would have to overcome the government’s power to frame the issues in a case. They possess that power both because of their status as the government and their status as the litigant who brings the case and makes the allegations.
Casey Anthony was able to thwart the primitive impulse to destroy her because of the excellent work of her attorney, who did not run away from the morality play aspect of her criminal trial, but rather turned that aspect to her advantage. Amanda Knox benefited from a better justice system in Italy, at least with regard to its capacity for self-correction.
Sephora Davis? There’s one last chapter being written, in collaboration with the government of Canada and the United States Supreme Court.