I didn’t pay any attention to the Casey Anthony trial, although I was dimly aware that cable news shows were paying huge amounts of attention to the trial of a young woman accused of killing her two-year-old daughter.
In the wake of the jury verdict declaring Anthony not guilty of the crime, the media focus has become even more intense, and stories about the case seem to be unavoidable. Jurors are talking about how they reached their verdict. One of Anthony’s lawyers makes a vulgar gesture at members of the news media, whom Anthony’s counsel believe have engaged in character assassination. Other observers criticize the jury for what they consider to be a bad decision.
Murder trials happen every day in this country. Why do some trials — like the Casey Anthony trial, or the Menendez brothers trial, or any of the other criminal trials that people have obsessed about in this era of cable-TV sensationalism — command so much attention, whereas others don’t?
Right now, in Cleveland, a man accused in the deaths of 11 women is on trial. How many people in America have even heard of Anthony Sowell, the accused killer, or the poor women he is alleged to have killed, many of whom apparently had substance abuse problems and vanished without much attention being paid to their disappearance? Has Sowell’s trial received even a tiny fraction of the national attention that was paid to the Casey Anthony trial?
How can the death of one little girl, however tragic, command so much more attention than the horrific stories of the dead women that are being told at the Sowell trial? Which of the two trials is likely to have more to teach us about our society? And how much of the enormous disparity in attention paid to these two cases is due to race, class, and the perceived photogenic qualities of the victims and the defendants?
Anthony Sowell lived in a normal-looking house on Imperial Avenue in Cleveland’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. He is now accused of killing 11 women and burying them in shallow graves on his property. During the last six weeks since Sowell was arrested, police have searched his house and its grounds and made horrific discoveries and the community has mourned and buried the dead. Sowell is to go on trial for the crimes next year. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, which means that he will be evaluated by teams of psychiatrists who will render opinions on his mental state and his ability to understand that he was committing criminal acts.
The Sowell case raise many questions. Given Sowell’s record as a convicted attempted rapist, why didn’t police and prosecutors more aggressively investigate a December 2008 incident in which a woman claimed that Sowell had attacked her? When neighbors raised questions in 2007 about the awful smell in the neighborhood, which was described like the rotting of a dead body, why didn’t public officials do more to track down the true source of the smell? Why weren’t neighbors made more aware of Sowell’s status as a sexual offender? How could 11 women disappear without more attention being paid? Did people just not care about these things because the neighborhood was poor and some of the women were troubled?
When crimes so horrible and senseless are committed — and the details of what was uncovered in Sowell’s home are grisly indeed — it is important to separate the prosecution of the accused killer from the more general societal questions. The criminal justice system will deal with the defendant, but the community and its elected representative must address those broader issues. They must look into the social conditions and processes that allowed the crimes to be committed in the first place and that allowed them to go undetected for so long. Cleveland has started that process by naming a commission to look into the city’s approach to sexual assault and missing person reports.
In the meantime, the population of troubled women from whom the victims came — many of whom allegedly were lured by offers of alcohol and drugs — has reacted to the news story, and local agencies are seeing a spike in the number of women seeking treatment for addiction. The inevitable question, and the great challenge, is whether the impetus for treatment will continue, and whatever new programs and processes will remain in place and fully funded, when time passes and the fresh horror of what happened at the house on Imperial Avenue fades into a dim memory.