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Casey Anthony’s trial by media

interior-caseyanthonyPublished in the Sunday Herald on July 17, 2011.

The most hated woman in America will be escorted from Orange County Jail in Florida today, into a storm of flashing lights. As the confines of her new life become clear, in the glare of unrelenting scrutiny and condemnation, the prison she leaves behind may not seem like such a bad place, after all.

Casey Anthony has been convicted in the court of public opinion of killing her two-year-old daughter, Caylee, by drugging her with chloroform and suffocating her with duct tape, then burying her body in the woods, wrapped in a Winnie The Pooh blanket. That the jury found her not guilty of murder, not guilty of manslaughter and not guilty of aggravated child abuse is almost incidental. She has been judged on television and must now face her punishment.

Anthony has been in solitary confinement for almost three years, kept in a six foot by eight foot cell for her own safety, to avoid other inmates attacking her. Because of time served and good behaviour, her sentence – one year in jail, plus a fine of $1,000 for each of four counts of lying to investigators – ends today. She has reportedly decided against plastic surgery to alter her appearance, but will be released into protective custody and is considering a name change.

Although it will be extremely difficult for her to get a normal job, Anthony should have no problem paying the bills. She is widely reviled, but also the hottest media property in America. The networks are scrambling for the first interview and a lucrative memoir seems inevitable. ABC has already paid $200,000 to her defence team, in return for exclusive rights to photographs and videos of Caylee during the trial. NBC flew a juror and her family to Disney World, for an all expenses paid holiday, to secure a five minute chat. The case that Time magazine described as “the social media trial of the century” has exposed the deeply uneasy relationship between the entertainment industry and the criminal justice system.

The news channels made no secret of the fact that they were broadcasting a soap opera, peopled with unsavoury, scarcely believable characters. Defence counsel Jose Baez was a bankrupt bikini salesman, denied a law licence for eight years as a result of his “total lack of respect for the legal system”. In his opening statement, he alleged that Casey Anthony had been abused by her father, George, but never presented any evidence or witnesses to back it up.

George and Cindy Anthony’s severely wounded relationship with their daughter was ripped open on the witness stand, as the defence argued that Caylee drowned accidentally in their pool and the family worked together to cover up her death – something they denied. Cindy claimed that it was her, not Casey, that searched for “how to make chloroform” and “neck breaking” on the computer they shared. Although Casey was never called to testify, the prosecution cast her in the leading role, as a selfish mother, cold enough to kill her own child.

Responses to the case indicated that, in the Big Brother era, many people have difficulty differentiating reality from television. NBC reporter Kerry Sanders, who covered the trial from start to finish, said people queued to get in each morning, expecting drama. “I think an interview I did with one of the court watchers in line for tickets explained it best by the words she chose. She told me, ‘I tape it every day, and I have not missed an episode,’” Sanders said. “Episode? I was flabbergasted. I even told her, ‘This is real, you know? A courtroom, not a TV show.’ She said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ and then sort of laughed. I met a woman here from Savannah, Georgia. who dropped her children off at Disney and instead chose to go to court for the day. It was her vacation, she said.”

The prosecution case rested on a thorough demolition of Casey’s character, detailing her many lies, to her parents and police. She lied about a having a job at Universal Studios, misled the search teams looking for her daughter and invented a non-existent nanny, Zanaida Fernandez Gonzalez, telling Cindy that she had abducted Caylee. In her closing argument, lead prosecutor Diane Burdick portrayed these deceptions as a desperate attempt to cover up her crime: “What do guilty people do? They lie, they avoid, they run, they mislead… they divert attention away from themselves and they act like nothing is wrong.”interior-caseyanthony2

As she spoke, she showed a photograph of Casey dancing at a nightclub, taken during the month in which she failed to report Caylee missing, followed by a close-up of the tattoo she had done in the same period: a cursive script reading Bella Vita (‘the good life,’ in Italian) across her left shoulder blade.

The prosecution’s main weakness was a lack of compelling physical evidence. Baez skilfully exploited this deficiency, telling the jurors that the State’s Attorney was relying on emotion, in the absence of conclusive proof. “The strategy behind that is, if you hate her, if you think she’s a lying, no-good slut, then you’ll start to look at this evidence in a different light,” he said.

Because Caylee’s body wasn’t found until December, six months after she disappeared, there was no DNA to link her to her killer. Police failed to act on a tip off from meter reader Roy Kronk, who reported a suspicious object in the woods in August 2008. By the time he called them again, in December, they were faced with what prosecutor Lawson Lamar described as “a dry-bones case – very, very difficult to prove.”

Prosecutors introduced an air sampling technique that had never been used in court before, claiming that there were particles in Casey’s car “consistent with a decompositional event,” to back up Cindy Anthony’s emergency call, in which she told the operator “there is something wrong. I found my daughter’s car today and it smells like there’s been a dead body in the damn car.” In the witness box, George Anthony, a former policeman, said he recognised the scent immediately: “That particular smell whenever you smell it, it’s something that you never forget. It’s a very distinct odour.”

The first jurors to speak to the press after the not guilty verdict was announced, a 46-year-old man who asked to remain unidentified, told the St. Petersburg Times that “everybody agreed if we were going fully on feelings and emotions, she was done… I wish we had more evidence to put her away, I truly do, but it wasn’t there.” Jennifer Ford, the juror who accepted a trip to Disney World, told ABC news: “I did not say she was innocent… I just said there was not enough evidence.”

The outcome knocked the wind out of the pundits condemning Casey on television, but not for long. Nancy Grace, who has been leading the trial by media on her cable news show, commented that “the devil is dancing tonight”. She later told Fox News host Bill O’Reilly: “What went wrong is not me. What went wrong is the jury verdict” – a statement any British editor would strike out as an unambiguous libel. Grace will follow the woman she derisively refers to as “tot mom” wherever she goes, with good reason: more than five million people tuned into her show to hear the verdict, making it by a distance her highest-rated ever.

The New York Post went with “Not Guilty As Sin,” for its front page headline. Scores of celebrities tweeted that they were appalled by the jury’s decision. One news anchor, Julie Chen, broke down in tears while reading the verdict. Unsurprisingly, when Gallup conducted a poll, 64% of the people they asked thought Anthony was guilty. Women were twice as likely as men to be angry that she was acquitted.

“The public has been whipped up into this frenzy wanting revenge for this poor little adorable child,” said Carole Lieberman, a forensic psychiatrist at the University of California. “Nobody likes a liar, and Anthony was a habitual liar. And nobody liked the fact that she was partying after Caylee’s death. Casey obviously has a lot of psychological problems. Whether she murdered her daughter or not is another thing.”

At change.org, well over a million people have signed a petition calling for a “Caylee’s Law,” making it a federal offence to fail to report a child missing for more than 24 hours, or to fail to report the death of a child within an hour. The petition’s author, a mother of two, Michelle Crowder, has admitted that she didn’t consult with lawyers or police officers before coming up with these arbitrary time periods, but the basic idea has hit a nerve. At least 17 states are considering versions of the law, even though it will be remarkably difficult to enforce. “God forbid we ever run into a mother like Casey Anthony again,” Congressman Scott Plakon told the Associated Press. “If we do, that mother will be a felon.”

Anthony is being sued for defamation by a real life Zanaida Fernandez Gonzalez – who says Anthony’s choice of name for “Zanny the nanny” has harmed her reputation. Texas Equusearch, the group that led the search for Caylee, is suing her for $100,000, claiming she wasted their time, knowing that her daughter would not be found alive. Fox News contributor Dr. Keith Ablow has already signed a book deal for “Inside the mind of Casey Anthony” with St. Martin’s Press. A movie is rumoured to be in development, although the Lifetime cable channel, which has aired feature length fictions based on the Meredith Kercher and Natalee Holloway murder cases, has denied any involvement.

Defence attorney Cheney Mason, who railed on the courtroom steps against “lawyers getting on television and talking about cases that they don’t know a damn thing about,” said media coverage of the trial has made him concerned for Anthony’s safety. “That is the most recognisable face in this country, next to President Obama,” he told Fox News. “And I don’t know where she is going to be able to go. We’re not telling when or how or where. She is going to have problems for a very long time, I’m sure.”

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