ORLANDO, Fla. — Casey Anthony’s eyes welled with tears and her lips trembled as the verdict was read once, twice and then a third time: “Not guilty” of killing her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.
Outside the courthouse, many in the crowd of 500 reacted with anger, chanting, “Justice for Caylee!” One man yelled, “Baby killer!”
In one of the most divisive verdicts since O.J. Simpson was acquitted in 1995 of murdering his ex-wife, Anthony was cleared Tuesday of murder, manslaughter and child-abuse charges after weeks of wall-to-wall TV coverage and armchair-lawyer punditry that one of her attorneys denounced as “media assassination.”
Anthony, 25, was convicted only of four misdemeanor counts of lying to investigators who were looking into the child’s June 2008 disappearance.
Anthony could get up to a year behind bars on each count when she is sentenced Thursday. But since she has been in jail for nearly three years already, she could walk free. Had she been convicted of murder, she could have gotten the death penalty.
After a trial of a month and a half, the Florida Ninth Judicial Circuit Court jury took less than 11 hours to reach a verdict in a case that had become a national cable TV sensation, with its CSI-style testimony about the smell of death inside a car trunk and its storyline about a seemingly self-centered, hard-partying young mother.
Prosecutors contended that Anthony — a single mother living with her parents — suffocated Caylee with duct tape because she wanted to be free to hit the nightclubs and spend time with her boyfriend.
Defense attorneys argued that the little girl accidentally drowned in the family swimming pool, and that Anthony panicked and concealed the death because of the traumatic effects of sexual abuse by her father.
State’s Attorney Lawson Lamar said: “We’re disappointed in the verdict today because we know the facts and we’ve put in absolutely every piece of evidence that existed.” The prosecutor lamented the lack of hard evidence, saying, “This is a dry-bones case. Very, very difficult to prove. The delay in recovering little Caylee’s remains worked to our considerable disadvantage.”
Anthony failed to report Caylee’s disappearance for a month. The child’s decomposed body was eventually found in the woods near her grandparents’ home six months after she was last seen. A medical examiner was never able to establish how she died, and prosecutors had only circumstantial evidence that Caylee had been killed.
The jurors — seven women, five men — would not talk to the media and their identities were kept secret by the court.
The case played out on national television almost from the moment Caylee was reported missing three years ago. HLN’s Nancy Grace approached the case with the zeal of the hard-nosed prosecutor she once was, arguing that Anthony — or “the tot mom,” as Grace routinely called her — was responsible for her daughter’s death.
Anthony’s attorney Cheney Mason lashed out at the media after the verdict.
“Well, I hope that this is a lesson to those of you having indulged in media assassination for three years, bias, prejudice and incompetent talking heads saying what would be and how to be,” Mason said.
Without mentioning Grace by name, he added: “I’m disgusted by some of the lawyers that have done this, and I can tell you that my colleagues from coast to coast and border to border have condemned this whole process of lawyers getting on television and talking about cases that they don’t know a damn thing about.”
The defense team gathered after the verdict to celebrate at a restaurant across the street from the courthouse. At one point Mason was seen in the window extending his middle finger toward the crowd outside.
Grace said after the jury’s decision: “There is no way that this is a verdict that speaks the truth.”
Given the relative speed with which the jury came back, many court-watchers were expecting Anthony to be convicted and were stunned by the outcome.
Anthony’s parents left court quickly after the verdict without hugging or saying anything to Anthony. As court broke up, she smiled broadly and tightly hugged her lawyers.
“While we’re happy for Casey, there are no winners in this case,” Anthony attorney Jose Baez said after the verdict. “Caylee has passed on far, far too soon, and what my driving force has been for the last three years has been always to make sure that there has been justice for Caylee and Casey because Casey did not murder Caylee. It’s that simple. And today our system of justice has not dishonored her memory by a false conviction.”
Because the case got so much media attention in Orlando, jurors were brought in from the Tampa Bay area and sequestered for the entire trial, during which they listened to more than 33 days of testimony and looked at 400 pieces of evidence. Anthony did not take the stand.
The case became a macabre tourist attraction in Orlando. People camped outside for seats in the courtroom, and scuffles broke out among those desperate to watch the drama unfold.
In closing arguments, prosecutor Linda Drane Burdick showed the jury two side-by-side images. One showed Anthony smiling and partying in a nightclub during the first month Caylee was missing. The other was the tattoo Anthony got a day before law enforcement learned of the child’s disappearance: the Italian words for “beautiful life.”
“At the end of this case, all you have to ask yourself is whose life was better without Caylee?” Burdick asked. “This is your answer.”
Prosecutors also focused heavily on an odor in the trunk of Anthony’s car, which forensics experts said was consistent with the smell of human decay. But the defense argued that the air analysis could not be duplicated, and that maggots in the trunk had come from a bag of trash.
Prosecutors hammered away at the lies Anthony told when the child was missing: She told her parents that she couldn’t produce Caylee because the girl was with a nanny named Zanny — a woman who doesn’t exist; that she and her daughter were spending time with a rich boyfriend who doesn’t exist; and that Zanny had been hospitalized after an out-of-town traffic crash and that they were spending time with her.
Baez said during closing arguments that the prosecutors’ case was so weak they tried to portray Anthony as “a lying, no-good slut” and that their forensic evidence was based on a “fantasy.” He said Caylee’s death was “an accident that snowballed out of control.”
He contended that the toddler drowned and that when Anthony panicked, her father, a former police officer, decided to make the death look like a murder by putting duct tape on the girl’s mouth and dumping the body in the woods a quarter-mile away. Anthony’s father denied both the cover-up and abuse claims.
The verdict could divide people for years to come, just as the Simpson case did, with some believing Anthony got away with murder.
Ti McLeod, who lives near the Anthony family, said, “The justice system has failed Caylee.” Jodie Ickes, who lives a mile away and goes to the same hairdresser as Anthony, said she is against the death penalty and was glad that Casey wasn’t facing execution. “I’m comfortable with the outcome,” she concluded.
Among the trial spectators was 51-year-old Robin Wilkie, who said she has spent $3,000 on hotels and food since arriving June 10 from Lake Minnetonka, Minn. She tallied more than 100 hours standing in line to wait for tickets and got into the courtroom 15 times to see Anthony.
“True crime has become a unique genre of entertainment,” Wilkie said. “Her stories are so extreme and fantastic, it’s hard to believe they’re true, but that’s what engrosses people. This case has sex, lies and videotapes — just like on reality TV.”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.