ORLANDO -- Hours before sunrise, they line up on the sidewalk in front of the Orange County Courthouse by the dozens -- an interior decorator from Savannah, a true-crime blogger from Illinois, a former Miami International Airport air traffic controller -- all hoping for a chance to witness the blockbuster murder trial of Casey Anthony.
Armed with coffee and energy drinks, novels and crosswords puzzles, they sit or sprawl on the sidewalk waiting for 5:30 a.m. when the all-out -- and much-videoed -- sprint often begins to secure seats in the courtroom to watch a slice of the trial that has both fascinated and repelled the American public.
Often, the first person in line is Brian Maher, identifiable on Internet videos of the Black Friday-like stampede for seats as the guy wearing the distinctive neck brace. He arrives about 3 a.m. each day to vie for a seat, beating out the latecomers who show up at 5 a.m. or so. On Wednesday, the group waiting for tickets to claim about 50 seats available for the public in the courtroom on the 23rd floor included students and tourists, professionals who took a day off from work, and two journalists from Tokyo there to take the saga global.
It’s a surreal scene, a voyeuristic tableau, that has repeated daily during the trial of the 25-year-old Orlando mother charged with the murder of her 2-year-old daughter.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I have followed this case for three years, I am fascinated with her life and all the stories she has told,’’ says Tiffany Chaffin, 24, who along with an aunt and cousin traveled 150 miles from Lake City to score seats during the third week of the trial. They arrived in Orlando at 1 a.m. Wednesday, heading to the courthouse two hours later to snag positions 8, 9 and 10 in the line, guaranteeing courtroom seats.
“The whole world is watching this,’’ Chaffin marveled.
The story of Casey Marie Anthony, and her daughter, Caylee Marie, has evolved into a breathless soap opera with tabloid twists and turns, characters brought to life by lies, a phantom nanny accused of kidnapping the child, incest claims, the specter of a death sentence -- and a rapt American audience that can’t seem to get enough of the spectacle playing out in Orlando, land of The Mouse.
Further stoking the interest: a blank-faced Anthony herself, who has displayed little emotion during the trial except when graphic details about her child’s remains emerged. She’s charged with first-degree murder, accused of suffocating her daughter with duct tape three summers ago, then storing the body in her car trunk. Her defense team contends the little girl drowned in the family pool.
As the trial enters its fourth week, the madness -- delivered by a mass of media covering the trial live -- shows no signs of abating. Along with the hundreds who are sufficiently curious to line up at the courthouse each day as early as midnight, millions more have tuned in by television, radio, newspapers, live streaming, blogs and internet chats, willingly held hostage by the coverage. In Orlando, more people watched the trial on three local stations combined than watched one of the Miami Heat/Dallas Mavericks NBA playoff games during prime time last week.
On Friday morning, as nearly 100 people lined up for entry tickets, police had to break up an early-morning scuffle and one woman was taken to the hospital by ambulance when she fell and the crowd of seat-seekers raced past and over her.
The public obsession echoes big cases from the past -- OJ Simpson’s murder case, perhaps, or the trial of Michael Jackson. Yet even without the celebrity factor, the Casey Anthony case has captured the collective psyche, driven as much by contemporary social media as the monstrous details of an accused child killer.
“Once you start to take in the details, then you understand why people can’t look away. You have the horrible death of an adorable little girl, and by nature we are fascinated with human horrors. You have a young and pretty mother and the idea that she would, could kill her child to be free of her -- which, in itself, is mystifying,’’ says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. “You have imaginary friends and the double life and you have the whole month that the child was ‘missing’ and Casey seems all along to be doing fine. When you stack that amount of weirdness up, along with the ease of getting public information in Florida, and you have a story that takes on a life of its own.’’
Leonard and Renae Freeman arrived in Orlando Monday for a weeklong celebration of their 14th anniversary. But by the next morning, they were standing in front of the courthouse shooting pictures and trying to figure out a way to get into the trial.
“We watch it on television every day and have followed it since we saw the picture of that gorgeous little girl. You saw her face and you cared about her,’’ says Leonard Freeman, a maintenance worker in Tampa. “And then you keep asking yourself, how can someone kill her? Maybe it was an accident but then you have to ask yourself how can someone lie the way Casey Anthony does. It’s hard to let the case go.’’
The couple even ventured 10 miles outside of downtown to see the Anthony family house on Hopesprings Drive, a pale pink home with three signs near the door that read: “Love,” “Faith” and “Hope.” After lunch Tuesday, their persistence paid off. The two got passes for the seats of people who hadn’t returned for the afternoon court session. Testimony at that point focused on an odor from Anthony’s car trunk and the cadaver dogs.
“I wanted to see her personally. I wanted to see her face,’’ says Renae Freeman.
Caylee’s skeletal remains were discovered in the woods less than a mile from the family’s east Orange County home two weeks before Christmas. By then, the story was on the national radar: the little girl’s face had been on the cover of People magazine twice and HLN television personality Nancy Grace was hosting a regular show on the latest slivers of news and analysis in the case, even nicknaming Anthony, “Tot mom.” When the trial started May 24, Fox News’s Geraldo Rivera and Grace were in the courtroom. About 700 journalists have been credentialed for the trial, including broadcasters for Fuji TV in Japan and a station in France.
A barren downtown lot across the from the courthouse dubbed Casey Town is where news organizations have parked satellite trucks and pitched tented studios, forming a temporary media village cordoned off from the public. The HLN and Turner Networks’ two-story compound even has three large windows with views of the courthouse -- that’s where Grace’s show airs live. On the back side of the court complex, one television station is broadcasting from the balcony of the Travelodge hotel.
“We planned as if this were a Category 5 hurricane,’’ says court spokeswoman Karen Levey, who researched the high-profile trials of Kobe Bryant and Scott Peterson to help with logistics. “But what we were most surprised by was the public’s engagement. With the amount of social media and live streaming, we assumed that people would stay home to watch, but they want to be here in the courtroom. We have a regular stream of people calling who are planning to come to a theme park and want to get in the trial and others who want to come in for the trial and throw in a day at the theme park.’’
Miami-based NBC correspondent Kerry Sanders has been covering the story for the Today show from the beginning.
“I have been covering grisly crimes in Florida courts for 30 years, from outlaw motorcyclists to pedophile murderers, and this one is seemingly more horrible because it’s incomprehensible that a 22-year-old mother could have murdered her 2-year-old so she can go out and party, as the prosecution contends. It’s hard to grasp that kind of narcissism,’’ says Sanders. “People are captivated by this. Not just people from Orlando or Florida, but across the United States and the world, especially because of social media. Twitter is ablaze with the Casey Anthony trial.”
Casey and Caylee Anthony’s tragic story became public three years ago with a panicked 9-1-1-call from the girl’s grandmother, Cindy Anthony, on July 15 after Casey admitted to her mother the child had been missing for 31 days. Anthony would later tell police that she dropped her daughter off with a nanny and when she returned, they were both gone.
From the beginning, as investigators searched for Caylee, the case and those associated with it -- the Anthony family members, the bounty hunter, the meter reader and the babysitter -- attracted national attention, led by Grace who kept the case in the public consciousness for the next two years.
“The trial plays out like a classic Greek tragedy with the love and hate dynamics between the grandmother, mother and daughter,” Grace told TVNewser. “In this particular case, you have a physically attractive defendant, articulate, and with great potential, the world at her feet, and now we see her charged with murder of her young daughter.”
Grace’s show attracted 1.1 million viewers in total during its first week of trial coverage.
“Early on, Nancy showed an interest in this case. It just had so much mystery and so many human elements -- how a young mother raises her child, how grandparents participate in her life, what happens when they don’t like [the daughter’s] behavior,’’ said Scott Safon , HLN executive vice president and general manager. “On one level, this is about a dysfunctional family but on another you are looking at people who are relatable. And for Nancy Grace, especially since she has become a mother, one of her core focuses has been families and communities meeting their obligation to children and when they fail children.’’
For Brian Maher, otherwise known as “neck brace guy” in the world of the web, the daily trips to the courthouse were about something else: wiling away the time. Vertebrae surgery in April left him out of work as a truck driver five to six months. A bit of boredom and the hype of the case lured him to the courthouse, but it was a video clip of him sprinting for a seat with his neck brace on that brought him his own moment of dubious celebrity.
“I was just trying to kill the time while I deal with my injury but it really is an interesting case,’’ says Maher, who has gotten a seat at least seven times. “If I am not fishing, I am here.”