Casey Anthony and the court of public opinion

July 5, 2011

So the jury, at last, has spoken: In America’s first tragic, tawdry, tortuous Trial of the New Century — which seemed as though it would never get started, and, once it began, seemed as if it would never end — the state of Florida managed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Casey Anthony . . . lied to the cops.

That’s it: Four misdemeanor counts of “providing false information to a law enforcement officer,” punishable by a slap on the wrist, pretty much.

First-degree murder? Not guilty. Aggravated child abuse in the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee? Not guilty. Aggravated manslaughter of a child? Ditto.

Say wha . . . ? How could this be? The court of public opinion (read: the media — TV talking heads, especially) long ago reached its verdict: She must be guilty.

“A snake charmer,” declared Nancy Grace of CNN.

“I am shocked by” the verdicts, tweeted Joy Behar of ABC’s “The View” after the jury’s decision was announced Tuesday. “Though I can’t say this isn’t the first time Florida’s screwed up an important vote.” On CBS, the co-hosts of “The Talk” wept.

The jurors haven’t commented publicly yet. There were reports that they had agreed to keep quiet. We’ll see. When bookers for the big network morning shows start offering five-figure “licensing fees,” some tongues on the panel might loosen.

And here’s what they might say: We don’t know how Caylee died. Nor do the police. Nor do the prosecutors. The autopsy was inconclusive.

By the time the child’s remains turned up in a swamp, months after her disappearance, they were badly decomposed and long past telling what killed her.

The state presented a mountain of evidence that Anthony, 25, was a lot less interested in being a mother than she was in being a party girl, and that she lied, lied, lied — again and again, often ridiculously — to conceal her daughter’s death.

Yet for all the public loathing of Anthony that the evidence whipped up, for all the vilification she was subjected to in the talk-show arena — the fact is, being a lousy mother isn’t a capital offense. Not seeming to care that your child is dead isn’t punishable by lethal injection. Being seen as despicable, of course, isn’t the same as being legally guilty.

In the end, the state’s case had a giant hole. There simply was no clear evidence that Caylee was slain intentionally. It was a hole big enough for an acquittal.

“I hope that this is a lesson to those of you who have indulged in media assassination for three years — bias and prejudice and incompetent talking heads saying what would be,” said defense lawyer Cheney Mason, scolding the press Tuesday.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, the term “Dexter Morgan” started trending, referring to the serial killer in the popular Showtime series “Dexter,” an avenging psychopath who slays criminals who have avoided justice, who have beaten the rap.

In magazine racks this week, the cover of People features a photo of Anthony, and wonders: “Getting Away With Murder?” A lot of people think so, shouting angrily in front of the courthouse and banging out righteous condemnations on the Web.

But it turns out, there was no murder. At least, not beyond a reasonable doubt.

“This was a horrible tragedy, an accident that snowballed out of control,” defense attorney Jose Baez told Fox News, referring to Caylee’s death.

“The jury saw that,” he said, “and they’re the ones that heard all of the evidence, not the propaganda and the speculation and the Frankenstein-like lynch mob that ensued throughout the last three years.”

Staff writers Elizabeth Flock and Sarah Anne Hughes contributed to this report.

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