The long saga of the Casey Anthony trial came to an end today, as a jury pronounced her “not guilty” on murder, manslaughter, and child abuse charges in the death of her daughter, Caylee, who was killed in 2008 at the age of two. Casey Anthony was, however, convicted on four counts of lying to investigators, and might still be looking at some more jail time.
Caylee Anthony’s remains were found in a plastic bag in the woods near her home in Orlando, Florida, with duct tape on her face. The prosecution contended her mother killed the little girl because she had become a lifestyle-cramping inconvenience. The defense claimed that she drowned in the family pool, and was found by her grandfather, who helped dispose of the body in a manner that would make it look like she was abducted, thus concealing the negligence that truly caused her death.
Does the defense theory sound a bit far-fetched? They sold it hard to the jury, throwing out allegations that grandfather George Anthony had sexually abused Casey Anthony when she was a little girl, and working hard to portray him as a suicidal lunatic.
Casey, meanwhile, peddled lies about imaginary nannies and make-believe boyfriends during the month between Caylee’s disappearance, and the discovery of her body. She was photographed laughing and partying at nightclubs during the same period, and got a tattoo reading “beautiful life” in Italian the day before her family learned of her child’s disappearance.
A huge amount of evidence was introduced during the trial. In the end, it boiled down to which storyline the jury chose to believe. They were told that only the most iron-clad evidence was acceptable verification of the story that Casey murdered her daughter, or caused her inadvertent death through negligence.
On television shows like CSI, the tiniest mistake by a wily perpetrator leads to particles of evidence that heroic super-sleuths can weave into an airtight case. They work so efficiently that the perps often break down and confess before they ever see the inside of a courtroom, which provides a nice sense of release and closure for the audience. Meanwhile, in the real world, they found a piece of Caylee Antony’s hair with “post-mortem banding” in the trunk of her mother’s car, along with an ominous stain and the smell of death, but it wasn’t good enough to get a conviction.
On the other hand, the defense was free to offered a story about a young mother driven to bizarre and duplicitous behavior by the disappearance of her child, and a history of (unproven) abuse at the hands of her own father. Few evidentiary standards were applied.
The contest between prosecution and defense seems increasingly lopsided in favor of the defense, since they only have to produce a story the jury can swallow, rather than a narrative embroidered with DNA and video tape. The mountain of forensic material in a modern high-profile case seems, paradoxically, to make the prosecution’s job harder. It’s provocative enough to stimulate the creativity of the defense, but not solid enough to pass the exacting standards needed for a guilty verdict. The defense need only conjure the shadow of a doubt. Tortured family histories and vast reams of data contain plenty of shadows. This is a case that will be studied by dedicated law enforcement personnel, and determined criminals, for a long time to come.