It's a bit early in the millennium for a "trial of the century," but here we go again. And just like the trial of O.J. Simpson in 1995, the nation is riveted by the live televised courtroom drama of the trial of Casey Anthony, acquitted on Tuesday of the murder of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.
A large coterie of commentators has become a nightly staple for trial-watchers, and a whole new lexicon of phrases has entered the national conversation: "Smell Test," "Chloroform Searches," "Hot Body Contests," "Shot Girls," and "Bella Vita." A cast of characters, in and out of court, complete the sideshow, including fistfights among citizens hoping for a seat, and the arrest of one spectator caught on camera giving the finger to the lead prosecutor. So far, he's the only one who's been sentenced to jail.
The pundits also hail back to the O.J. trial. Marcia Clark showed up on CNN with Dan Abrams, while Fox News went with Mark Fuhrman. The network of record for the trial is Headline News, which features analysis by Dr. Drew Pinsky, Jane Velez-Mitchell, Joy Behar, and the venomous Nancy Grace, inventor of the phrase "Tot Mom." If the verdict had depended on public opinion, Nancy Grace would be swabbing Tot Mom's arm now.
The trial gives us the most intimate view since the Loud family in the 1970s of the inner dynamics of a dysfunctional household. This is also basically a story about mothers and their daughters. Ratings show the overwhelming number of trial viewers are women with young children. Like most sane people, they can't believe that any mother would murder her own child in order to "live the good life," as the prosecution charged.
Since Caylee disappeared in June 2008, we have come to know this family and their tortured story. Between George's cries, Cindy's lies, and Casey's sighs, we feel the grief of these parents torn between the death of a grandchild and the potential loss of a daughter as well. The courtroom demeanor of Casey Anthony, however, can only be described as chilling. While she scoffs at her fathers' tears and gazes at her mother with thinly disguised contempt, her stoic expression and hollow eyes are filled with a soullessness that no testimony could ever capture.
Everybody lies in court, from the attorneys to the police, but Casey Anthony is the Michelangelo of lying. She has more imaginary friends than I have real ones. Casey created "Zanny the Nanny" from a name on an apartment guest register. But she didn't just take the woman's name. She created a mother and sister for the phantom babysitter, supplied marital information, and gave her a college education. Among the innocents victimized by this case, a real person named Zenaida Fernandez-Gonzales had her life ruined for sport. Casey thought the more elaborate the lie, the more believable and thus walked the police all the way into Universal Studios before admitting she didn't work there, despite the fact she had been going to her fake job for two years.
If she is such a nimble liar, did she believe she could remain free while they searched for the fabricated nanny forever? And if her child drowned, as the defense claims, how to explain the fresh tattoo Casey got the next day or the month of hard partying before admitting her daughter was missing? Casey suffers from the narcissism of the assumed pretty. Her pals were all hooking up, and her boyfriend du jour didn't want a child around. Hot bodies are fleeting.
Unlike the O.J. trial, defense attorney Jose Baez is no Johnny Cochran. His slogan should be, "If your lawyer gets licked, you must convict." His fumfering, ill-prepared delivery makes him look particularly clumsy next to the professionalism of prosecutor Jeffrey Ashton. Baez' stunning opening statements about sexual abuse, incest, and the accusation that George Anthony covered up his granddaughter's drowning were left hanging in the air like the stench of death in a car trunk. Casey watched impassively while her counsel allowed Cindy to perjure herself in an effort to save her daughter's life. Not possessing any such motherly instincts, Casey is like a human wrecking ball, destroying everything in her path.
All the news-talkers expressed amazement at the ineptitude of Jose Baez, but after his fourth rebuke from Judge Belvin Perry, I began to glimpse his genius strategy.
With the Florida death penalty at stake, this was truly reality television. Most likely, Casey will never reveal what actually happened to Caylee. Baez conjured an image of George Anthony holding his drowned grandchild while plotting the disposal of her remains, then he never mentioned it to the jury again. My favorite new legal opiner, attorney Mark Eiglarsh, said, "It's hard to prove murder without a cause of death." After 84 Google searches for "chloroform" and additional searches for "neck-breaking" and "internal bleeding" on the family computer, any reasonable juror might suspect premeditation, regardless of the cause of death.
A child is dead and a family is ruined. A life sentence might have allowed Casey the time to train her hyper-imagination toward writing fiction. Personally, I'd like to have seen Tot Mom put under house arrest. Only, it would have to be in Nancy Grace's house.
Randy Haspel writes the blog Born-Again Hippies, where a version of this column first appeared.