Shadow in paradise
'They fry 'em in Florida' reads a sign in the Sunshine State. This is bad news for Casey Anthony who is accused of murdering her toddler daughter Caylee. The 25-year-old Florida mother protests her innocence and alleges sexual abuse in her family history while receiving sacks of fan mail from would-be suitors. Donal Lynch reports from the US on the twists and turns of the trial
Published 29/05/2011 | 05:00
LIKE most places in small-town America, the few decent restaurants in Clearwater, Florida, teemed with activity three Sundays ago.
Mother's Day -- which falls in early May in the US -- brought out the crowds; blue-haired snowbirds strolling arm-in-arm with their visiting, dutiful progeny; elderly widowers taking their mind off things at the golf course. The public buildings in this tacky tourist hotspot were predictably deserted in the afternoon, save for a growing media presence in the courthouse car park. Fittingly, they had gathered there because of another mother: Casey Anthony.
The drumbeat had begun. All it took was the whiff of a rumour that the accused child-murderer would soon make an appearance in this spring-break epicentre for the first satellite vans to arrive and the helicopters to buzz overhead. They would soon be followed by the protesters and the news anchors.
"It's going to be a circus here," one local resident told the Sunday Independent. "If it does come here it's really going to be a circus."
The "it" in this case is the trial of Anthony for the alleged murder of her two-year-old daughter in 2008. The case has been a sensation in America: Anthony is a young woman with wide, innocent eyes and sexy bee-stung lips who has packed several lifetimes of tabloid sleaze into her 25 years. Her alleged victim is her impossibly cute daughter, missing for a month before police were informed. If these stakes were not high enough, then consider the inscription on one of the signs parked outside Anthony's old home: "They fry 'em in Florida." If convicted, this beautiful young woman, who says she grieves every day for her child, faces the death penalty.
It's a cocktail that has hawkish news mavens such as Nancy Grace licking their talons. As the trial began last week more than 700 journalists -- an unprecedented number -- had applied to the Florida court system for accreditation for the trial. An Orlando television station has created a Casey Anthony iPhone app, which gives minute-by-minute updates on the case. The endless, exhaustive analysis of courtroom minutiae -- "she wished her own mother a happy Mother's Day!" -- has prompted comparisons to the OJ Simpson trial. "It's reality TV and it's just quirky enough and you have pretty people doing it, and that's just impossible for the media to resist," said Charles Rose, professor of trial advocacy at Stetson Law School in Gulfport, Florida.
But in the end, justice, even in America, is administered not by Nancy Grace and her gavel, but by a judge and jury. And it is this fact that brought the story to the tourist town on Florida's west coast. The potential jury pool would have been so contaminated near to the scene of the alleged crimes in Orlando that the judge presiding in the case, Belvin Perry, made the decision to move the trial to Clearwater (where, presumably, people don't have the internet). But even there, far from Anthony's home, it has been difficult to find jurors who, as required, have not been tainted by the firestorm of media coverage. The selection of the 12 men and women has been a strange mixture of art and science. The twists and turns of the case, how- ever, have been the stuff of low literature.
Only one woman knows how the story really begins, but in the steaming Florida June of 2008, Casey Anthony claimed that she dropped off her daughter with a babysitter named Zenaida Fernandez-Gonzalez at an apartment complex near Orlando. Over the following month Casey's mother, Cindy, a nurse, repeatedly requested access to her granddaughter but Casey always found a reason why this was not possible.
On Wednesday of last week, two former roommates of Casey Anthony's boyfriend testified that she stayed at their apartment in June 2008 when her daughter Caylee was missing. Nathan Lezniewicz and Cameron Campana said that they never saw the 25-year-old Anthony angry, sad or depressed while she was staying at their Orlando apartment. Both said they met Caylee in early June, but then the toddler stopped coming to the apartment. In mid-July 2008, Cindy and George Anthony -- Casey's father -- received a notice that their daughter's car had been towed away and was in a compound. George went to pick up the car and when he got close to it told an employee at the compound (and he later repeated this to police) that the stench made him think that his granddaughter might be dead in the boot. When he looked in the boot, however, he only found some decomposing rubbish in a bag.
Cindy later found her daughter staying with a boyfriend. She confronted her about the whereabouts of the child. Casey initially told her mother that the toddler was staying with the babysitter, but then broke down and said she had not seen Caylee in a month. Cindy called emergency services, first to tell them that she needed to bring Casey in because she had stolen her car and some money -- Casey could be heard in the background arguing that she needed another day to produce the child. Given the subject matter the conversation was remarkably -- eerily, some might say -- even and calm. Moments later Cindy called back again, this time more hysterically and tearfully, and said that she was reporting a missing child and "(Casey) just admitted to me she's been trying to find (Caylee) herself. There's something wrong ... there's been a dead body in the damn car."
At that point Casey herself came on the line and said that her daughter has been missing for 31 days and that she'd been searching for her. She sounded deadpan and well-spoken, a million miles from the hard-living wild child she would subsequently be depicted as in the tabloids. She might have been ordering pizza for all the emotion she conveyed.
When questioned Casey told police that the child was with a babysitter. Fernandez-Gonzalez -- the alleged childminder -- was eventually located and told police that she had never even met Casey Anthony. On July 17, Casey was officially charged with child neglect, lying to investigators and interfering with a criminal investigation. Judge Stan Strickland initially denied bail, because Casey showed a "woeful disregard for the welfare of her child". The Anthonys' backyard was searched and detectives also seized Casey's car and sent it to a forensics bank after finding evidence of possible human decomposition.
Casey said she lied only because she was conducting her own investigation, but police say the Florida woman fed them a litany of lies from the beginning. Photographs later surfaced that purportedly showed the young mother partying and cavorting with different men in the days after she claimed her daughter went missing. Two weeks after her daughter was last seen, Casey got a tattoo with the inscription "Bella Vita" -- or "beautiful life" in Italian. Investigators say Casey never had contact with Fernandez-Gonzalez, a mother of six from Kissimmee in Florida, who was cleared by police. The woman reportedly said she had looked at an apartment and filled out a form at Sawgrass Apartments, where Anthony claims to have dropped off her daughter on June 9. Detectives said they found no phone or computer records showing Casey had ever communicated with Fernandez-Gonzalez.
As the media got wind of the case, the Anthony family were thrown into the spotlight. Their house, where Casey would often stay, was picketed by hundreds of protesters who chanted "baby killer". Through her lawyers, Casey refused to meet her family because she claimed that documents concerning her were being leaked by them to the media. Eventually hundreds of documents were released by police, revealing Cindy Anthony called Casey a "sociopath" in an instant message, and a "mooch," (someone who begs for money and favours) and that a friend said Casey wanted to put Caylee up for adoption -- she had her when she was 19 and refused to name the father -- but Cindy would not let her daughter do this. Casey and her attorneys, meanwhile, continued to urge for the case to be treated as one involving a missing child. Casey was offered an immunity deal in return for information leading to Caylee's discovery -- she turned this down.
Prosecutors were beginning to build a compelling case against her. Court documents released in November 2008, for example, show that someone searched the internet from the Anthony home for phrases such as "neck-breaking", "shovel", and "household weapons". A law-enforcement official said air samples showed a human body had once been held inside the trunk of Casey's car. Traces of chloroform, a substance used to induce unconsciousness, were also detected inside the woman's car, according to officials. In late August 2008, Casey was released on bail with an electronic ankle bracelet to monitor her movements -- but was later re-arrested on charges of fraud -- she allegedly used her friend's credit cards without permission and forged $700 worth of cheques.
All of this was merely a precursor to the central drama in the growing homicide investigation. In October, Casey was finally indicted for murder, aggravated child abuse, aggravated manslaughter and four counts of providing false information to police. She continued to protest her innocence.
In mid-December 2008 a utility worker made a grim discovery around the corner from the Anthony family home in Florida. Police were called and samples of material were sent to a lab for analysis. A local child search agency immediately called off its search for Caylee. Over the following 48 hours a skull, later confirmed to belong to the almost-three-year-old girl, was discovered. On December 19, Caylee was formally declared dead. Five days later, on Christmas Eve, an anonymous donor dropped 125 gift-wrapped toys off at a memorial site for the little girl -- adding, if anything, to the ghostly pall that had settled over the quiet suburb. The prosecution dropped the child-abuse charges -- these only apply when a child is alive. Meanwhile, the Anthony home became a macabre tourist attraction, a real-life haunted house, just down the road from the Disney theme parks.
The attention took its toll on Casey's family. George Anthony, her father, had initially seemed ready to fight his family's corner -- angrily confronting protesters outside his home. In January 2009, however, he left home for a job interview. His family became worried when he texted them saying he didn't want to live and that he "just wanted to be with Caylee". He would not tell them where he was going but when they reported their concerns, police were able to track Anthony to a motel room in Daytona Beach, Florida, using his mobile phone signals. When they entered his hotel room they found him still alive, but with an eight-page suicide note, in which he said he felt a failure as a husband and a father, and an empty bottle of pills. His lawyer later said that George had suffered from depression resulting from the upcoming trial of his daughter. He had also been deeply disturbed by allegations that Casey had made against him in letters released last year.
Despite her initial 911 call, Cindy Anthony now seems convinced of her daughter's innocence. In letters to Casey, Cindy wrote that she would continue to write to her daughter despite the certainty that the prosecution team will release the documents. "How much more of this insanity are we supposed to endure? Again, the state has released your letters. How in the world do they continue to get away with saying that they're part of discovery?" Cindy wrote in January of this year. Cindy added that she thinks investigators are working to "isolate" Casey and discourage her. "They are still waiting for you to crack. I will not let that happen," Cindy said in the letter. "I don't care who reads my letters."
In the same letter, it appears Cindy attempts to reassure Casey that her brother and father support her. In most of the letters, Cindy wrote about her faith and said that Psalms 25 and 55 help her sleep at night. "Don't let them destroy you," Cindy wrote. "Hold on to the truth and know that Jesus is with you. He will protect you from your enemies."
Her parents' support has not stopped Casey's defence team from raising the spectre of child abuse as a potential mitigating factor in the case. While questioning prospective jurors two weeks ago, her lawyers hinted that "a history of sexual abuse" might have explained their client's behaviour. Prior to the trial starting, one of Anthony's attorneys, Ann Finnell, raised potential "mitigating circumstances".
To try to gauge what would-be jurors might consider if they have to decide whether to sentence Anthony to death if she is convicted of murder -- sort of like "she didn't do this, but if she did how would you treat her?"-- Finnell specifically laid out such factors when broaching the subject with Orange County Superior Court Chief Judge Belvin Perry Jr, the presiding judge in the case.
She started with age -- Anthony was 23 when her daughter went missing -- then went on to include a "lack of maturity" and "lack of impulse control". The comments touched again on the Anthony family's rocky and complicated relationship with each other, as well as with the prosecution and defence teams. Casey Anthony made recently publicised allegations of sex abuse against her father and brother in a letter from jail last year. In an interview with NBC News afterwards, George Anthony, denied the claims and criticised the wisdom of Jose Baez, another of his daughter's attorneys, in even raising the issue. But his daughter's defence team seemed determined last week to persevere with the tactic. Finnell asked potential jurors if the fact that her client came from a "dysfunctional family" would change their approach or decision. "Lack of parental guidance. Mother and father failed to protect her as a child," said Finnell, grimly listing off what she described as "mitigating circumstances" to the judge. "The fact she was verbally and emotionally abused as a child. She was taught poor coping and has poor coping skills by normal standards. She was taught to project false appearance ... she was used as a decoy or pawn by her parents and a scapegoat for parental misconduct."
How these questions weigh against the swan-like figure of Casey Anthony in the dock remain to be seen. She held her head in her hands last week as she heard the stack of evidence against her. She receives sacks of fan mail from men, would-be suitors, who have been attracted by what The Huffington Post calls her "cult of infamy". In what has been dubbed a "stranger-than-fiction" last-minute twist to the build-up to this trial it seems Anthony is now being helped by the wife of a notorious serial killer. Rosalie Bolin, who joined the defence team as a mitigation expert, married Oscar Ray Bolin Jr -- currently serving several life sentences for three murders -- by phone in a secret wedding in 1996. She adds yet another stand to this story which builds towards its feverish midsummer climax.
The trial is expected to last another two weeks. Casey Anthony lost her daughter and if the prosecution has its way she may yet lose her life.
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