BT 329 & TalkTalk 329
The social media trial of the century
Caylee Marie Anthony would be eight years old now – if she’d lived.
Born on August 9, 2005, the many images of Caylee beamed to a captive audience by the global media show a beautiful child with big brown eyes and a toothy smile who disappeared without trace in mid-June 2008. She was reported missing by her grandmother Cindy a a month later, and in December her skeletal remains were found inside a rubbish bag in woods close to her family’s home in Orlando, Florida. Her bones were said to have been gnawed at by animals before police were led to the scene by meter reader Roy Kronk.
What played out next was the dramatic trial of Caylee’s young mother Casey in the spring and summer of 2011 and her even more sensational acquittal on counts of first degree murder, aggravated child abuse and aggravated manslaughter of a child.
The real Casey Anthony
The public outrage at the Not Guilty verdict was huge. Time Magazine called this the ‘social media trial of the century’ (it ended up a media circus and entertainment for the masses) and there are many who are still convinced of Casey’s guilt, including Florida prosecutor Jeff Ashton who led the case against her. His book ‘Imperfect Justice: Prosecuting Casey Anthony’ formed the basis for the filme Prosecuting Casey Anthony starring Rob Lowe (premiering on Lifetime, Thursday, 9pm).
The legal machine started rolling with a phonecall made by Caylee’s grandmother Cindy to emergency services on July 15, 2008. She reported not having seen Caylee for 31 days and said her daughter Casey’s car smelt ‘like a dead body had been inside it’ (her husband George had just picked the vehicle up from a tow yard).
The real truth of events leading up to this point has never been determined. Casey admitted she hadn’t seen her daughter for weeks, repeatedly lying to detectives, saying that Caylee had been kidnapped by her nanny and she had been too frightened to report it. The nanny, a woman called Zenaida ‘Zanny’ Fernandez-Gonzalez, who had supposedly cared for Caylee while her mum was working in Tampa, Florida, had never been seen by any of her family or friends, although she had spoken of her. Police were later able to trace a woman with that name but she denied ever having met Casey.
So Casey was charged with her daughter’s murder in October 2008, two months before her body was unearthed. She denied all charges against her. The Prosecution sought the death penalty.
On May 24, 2011, the trial commenced. Over the next six weeks 400 pieces of evidence would be submitted, the prosecution would call 59 witnesses while 47 took the stand for the defence. Casey, although found mentally competent to stand trial, never testified herself – something which many of the viewing public found hard to swallow.
The prosecution team, led by Ashton and Linda Drane Burdick, built their case around a portrayal of Casey as a party girl who wanted to be free of her parental responsibilities. They claimed that she used chloroform to render Caylee unconscious before putting duct tape over her nose and mouth to suffocate her and leaving her body in the boot of her car for several days before disposing of it.
The defence, headed up by Jose Baez, stated that Caylee had drowned accidentally in the family swimming pool on June 16, 2008, and that her body was disposed of by George Anthony. Baez also claimed that George had sexually abused Casey for years and it was this dysfunctional background that had caused her to keep quiet and carry on as normal. George Anthony always denied this abuse and it was never proven in court.
Some said Casey’s personality was also on trial in the Orange County courthouse – the fact she entered a ‘hot body’ nightclub contest four days after her defence team said her daughter died, as well as apparently renting films and going to bars and parties in the weeks that followed. Others, including the trial judge Belvin Perry, claim there were ‘two sides’ to her. (For more on this, read Nichi Hodgson's piece, 'How to dress guilty').
But whatever the truth, Casey was found not guilty of the three major charges against her on July 5, 2011, and walked free from prison days later.
What really happened to little Caylee has never been determined. No action has been taken against her grandfather, George Anthony.
Jeff Ashton said in his closing statements to the jury: ‘When you have a child that child becomes your life.’ And as the book and film allude, the central tragedy to this whole story must surely be what the fate was of an innocent two-year-old child – and why?