Contrary to America's seemingly unanimous gut feeling on the matter, a jury on July 5 found Casey Anthony not guilty of murdering her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee. Crowds outside the courtroom chanted, demanding that "justice for Caylee" be served. Within hours, a doctored photo featuring Anthony cozying up with the most notorious fugitive of the public trust, O.J. Simpson, began making the rounds on Facebook.
Now, less than a month later, what many an angry Facebook status or tweet has called a miscarriage of justice has inspired a familiar response: the conception of a new law bearing the name of the departed. Naturally, Tennessee lawmakers are at the front of the hysterical-response curve with their version of "Caylee's Law," a bill that would punish parents for failing to report a missing child within a certain time frame.
Public outcry over such a heinous crime is understandable, but similarly inspired legislation has had mixed results. One such case is Megan's Law, passed in New Jersey in 1994 and named after 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was raped and killed by a convicted sex offender who had moved in across the street from her family. Once enacted at the federal level in 1996, it required that all states adopt a procedure for notifying the public of any registered sex offenders in an area.
But in 2009, a study of the law's effectiveness in New Jersey funded by the Department of Justice found its effects did not match its intent. The concluding report said the law had not reduced sexual re-offenses, and its growing cost might not be justifiable.
While the particulars of the Anthony case are different, the call for corrective legislation is similar. "Caylee's Law" would criminalize what many found to be the most offensive piece of circumstantial evidence against Anthony: her failure to report Caylee missing for 31 days. As of this writing, more than 1.2 million people had signed the Change.org petition, where — after an online feedback loop appeared to give a semblance of substance to the outrage — the idea for the law began. Attentive to the publicity, lawmakers in as many as 20 states have proposed some version of it.
Legislators in three states have already filed versions of the bill: Florida, New Jersey and Tennessee. Here, state Rep. Tony Shipley proposed HB 2162, "The Caylee Anthony Act," on July 11, less than a week after the verdict. The bill would make it a Class E felony for a physically able parent not to report a missing child within 24 hours of the time they "knew, learned or believed" that child was missing.
The bill recently found a Senate sponsor in Murfreesboro's Bill Ketron, chairman of the Senate's Republican Caucus and a master of surfing the winds of the political fringe. His greatest moves include proposals to outlaw the Muslim practice of Shariah (it has since been amended), give driver's license exams in English only, and study the possibility of creating a unique currency for Tennessee, should the Federal Reserve collapse. To those who believe the bill is based more in reaction than reason, Ketron's endorsement was a confirmation of sorts.
Such slapdash legislating is no way to build a sensible legal structure, says Terry Maroney, a criminal law professor at Vanderbilt University whose areas of expertise include the role of emotion in law. She says that, while she understands the instinct behind this and similar movements, it's not a tendency she supports.
"I think the problem with this kind of approach to criminal law is that it's shortsighted," she says. "It takes something about a particular case, takes it out of context, and then builds this new legal rule around it and patches it onto the pre-existing legal framework."
Ketron didn't respond to a request for comment. In a recent Tennessean op-ed, he summoned the public frustration to prove a point no one is arguing: When it comes to reporting a child missing, time is of the essence.
To those who doubt the prudence of "Caylee's Law," that's precisely the problem: What attentive parent would intentionally wait to report their child missing? And on the flip side, would a negligent parent — or one with murderous intent — be deterred by the threat of a Class E felony?
"It's never a good idea to build rules around the exceptions," Maroney says. "In the vast majority of cases, parents are going to report their children missing. What upsets people about the Casey Anthony case is that she didn't for so long, but that's extraordinarily aberrant."
Rather than adding a law that could easily ensnare the innocent, Maroney says increased efforts on the front end of cases like Caylee Anthony's are a better approach.
"Passing 'Caylee's Law' may be easy, but I don't think it will do anything, and it could do a lot of harm," she says. "What I'd rather see is that kind of mobilization to strengthen our mechanisms for child welfare enforcement. Of course, that's not as easy as, say, liking something on a Facebook page."
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