A report on CNN today states that during trial proceedings on Thursday, June 30, 2011, a Casey Anthony trial spectator decided to give the middle finger to a prosecutor while the prosecutor was at the podium, in open court. Although the prosecutor did not see the middle finger being given because he was at the podium and had his back to the gallery, the spectator’s actions were caught on tape and played on national television for all to see. After Judge Perry was notified of the spectator’s actions, Chief Judge Perry, outside the presence of the jury, called the spectator, Matthew Bartlett, up to the court to address his actions. The Chief Judge questioned Bartlett as to what the middle finger gesture meant, and particularly, what the gesture meant to him. After Bartlett said he did not even know why he made the gesture, he apologized. Apparently not happy with the apology, Chief Judge Perry sentenced Bartlett to 6 days in the Orange County jail, a fine of $400.00, and $223.00 in court costs. Bartlett was handcuffed and escorted to jail by Orange County deputies.
Can the Judge really do that? In a word: YES. Attorneys are well aware that the courtroom is a place that demands the highest levels of respect and decorum. A court’s contempt powers are the means to enforcing the rules of the court, and maintaining proper behavior in a courtroom. While it may be that people who are not attorneys may not be aware of the court’s contempt powers, ignorance of the law is never a defense. And, in this case, ignorance of the law could not possibly be a defense because as noted in the CNN report, there is a sign posted indicating that gestures would not be tolerated. In addition to the sign, on May 4, 2011, Chief Judge Perry signed an Order Establishing Rules Governing Members of the Public, which clearly states that proper decorum was to be expected at all times, and that “[t]here shall be no gestures, facial expressions or the like, suggesting approval or disapproval during the proceedings.”
While a jail sentence may seem harsh at first, closer examination shows that perhaps that’s not the case. True, going to jail for giving the middle finger could be characterized as extreme. However, one cannot simply look at the action and the consequence in a vacuum. The larger picture needs to be taken into account. What we have here is a woman who is on trial, possibly facing the death penalty, for the murder of a little girl. These court proceedings, as do all court proceedings, require respect and solemnity. We also have a Judge who is responsible for balancing the rights of the media and the public to observe the proceedings, against the rights of the accused to a fair trial. Why should the Judge allow the irresponsible actions of one mere spectator inject a possible taint into the entire proceeding? After proceeding for more than 6 weeks, why run the risk of a mistrial because one immature person could not respect the rules of the Court? If the case is mistried, the entire process would have to start all over again, and the work of everyone–jurors, witnesses, attorneys and the Judge– will have been for nothing. In the end, I regret that the sentence had to be imposed, but I believe that to protect the dignity of the proceedings, the authority of the Court, and the efforts of all the players involved, the sentence is appropriate.