Jose Baez, lead defense counsel for Casey Anthony, answers questions as co-counsel Cheney Mason looks on after his client was found not guilty in her first-degree murder trial. Credit: Getty.
The recent acquittal of Casey Anthony on first-degree murder charges in connection with the 2008 death of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, has left many wondering what happened. With Anthony’s not guilty verdict, the crime (if there was one) remains unsolved.
Caylee Anthony joins a long list of unsolved child deaths. Many of them, like Caylee, have achieved international prominence. These include JonBenét Ramsey, the 6-year-old beauty pageant star killed in her Colorado home in 1996 and Azaria Chamberlain, a 9-week-old Australian girl who disappeared in the Australian Outback (and who may or may not have been eaten by a dingo).
However, the vast majority of unsolved child disappearances and homicides, both in the United States and around the world, don’t get the attention of Nancy Grace and the 24-hour news cycle; they are largely unknown and ignored.
What does "unsolved" mean? It does not mean that police and prosecutors do not have a pretty good idea of who committed the crime. Unsolved simply means that there was not enough evidence to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant is guilty. Similarly, defendants are not found innocent in a criminal trial; instead they are found not guilty.
To this day, the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman are unsolved. Though former football star O.J. Simpson was held responsible for the pair's death in a civil suit, technically the criminal case remains open and someone else could be arrested and charged with murdering Simpson and Goldman at any moment.
Many Americans expect that almost all crimes — especially sensational murders — will be solved, and criminals brought to justice, as a matter of course. Perhaps it’s the American notion that there is (or should be) justice for all, instilled in us from the Pledge of Allegiance. Perhaps it’s the so-called “CSI Effect,” in which the public sees crimes being committed (and solved, usually in 50 minutes or less) in their nightly crime show entertainment.
In the real world, solving murders is far from a sure thing. There are many reasons a prosecutor may be unable to build a strong enough case to convict that have nothing to do with a defendant’s guilt, ranging from laboratory mistakes to police incompetence to unreliable eyewitnesses.
While it’s true that most homicides are solved, a surprisingly high number are not. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly one in four homicides remains unsolved each year. (In fact, fewer homicides are solved now than in the past; in 1976, 79 percent of homicides were cleared, down to 64 percent in 2002.) There are about 30,000 homicides in the U.S. each year. Using the most recent numbers, that’s about 11,000 unsolved murders per year.
While a three in four clearance rate leaves much room for improvement (especially if your loved one is among the 25 percent of unsolved murders), the rate of unsolved crime is far higher in countries notorious for police and judicial corruption. Crimes involving the rich and powerful are likely to draw attention (and therefore a measure of justice), but it’s not uncommon for police in some countries to take little interest in investigating or solving crimes against the poor or powerless.
Just because Casey Anthony was found not guilty of murder does not mean that police accept the defense’s explanation that Caylee accidentally drowned in a swimming pool, and the case will likely remain open and unsolved.