The verdict roared through the hushed crowd.
Not guilty of first degree murder. Not guilty of aggravated child abuse. Not guilty of manslaughter.
And then, with an intake of collective breath, the reaction: “Oh my god, oh my god.”
For those who had waited outside the Orlando courthouse for the Casey Anthony verdict after six weeks of testimony, 11 hours of deliberation and three years of unrelenting media attention, the news that the jury had acquitted the 25-year-old on all but the most minor charges of lying to police left them bewildered and astonished, angry and in tears. Even with the four misdemeanor convictions, Anthony could be free as soon as Thursday.
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“Caylee died in vain. That poor little innocent baby was killed and treated like a piece of trash,’’ said Lanai Yelverton, wiping away tears. The Chattanooga, Tenn., mother and her husband ditched their Disney vacation plans for two days to await the verdict outside the courthouse. “There was no justice in this justice system today.’’
Emotions ran high in those first moments as the crowd, many armed with cell phones, cameras and video cameras, surged around the courthouse. Some cried. Some cursed. Strangers clung to each other, weakened by the decision. Outbursts flared, especially when the Anthony acquittal drew comparisons to OJ Simpson’s murder trial more than 15 years ago. Some chanted their frustration: “We want justice Justice for Caylee.”
In the far corner of the rotunda, Keettely Cooper clutched the Virgin Mary pendant hanging from her necklace and leaned against the courthouse’s granite columns. She cupped her hands over her streaming eyes with tears “How could they, how could they?”
“I feel like Caylee wasn’t just Casey’s baby, she became our baby,’’ says Cooper, 45, of Orlando, who had lingered near the doors for a verdict since the early morning. “I keep thinking of my own two kids and I just can’t imagine hurting them.’’
Hundreds of people from as far away as Germany, came to the courthouse to be part of a public moment, a life or death decision for an Orlando mother accused of killing her child so she could pursue a life of nightclubbing and parties. For many who gathered in the summer heat, the jury’s decision amounted to a terrible miscarriage of justice. For others — those in the minority, at least among the courthouse crowd — the acquittal was proof of what they’d believed all along. Casey Anthony couldn’t have killed her child. And even if she did, the prosecutors failed.
“The state did not prove their case. You have to get past all the drama and the storytelling,’’ said Sherri Jaques, who taught Anthony English in seventh grade. “Because she lied does not mean she murdered her child.’’
Frank Giannazzo, sporting a gray suit and a ponytail, braved the chaotic scene to voice his unpopular opinion: not guilty.
“If you take all the emotion out of this, you are left with a case in which there was no evidence linking her to the Caylee’s death,’’ said Giannazzo, who lives near Orlando and rushed to hear the verdict. “The state doesn’t even know how she died.”
Anthony was charged with the murder of her two-year-old daughter, Caylee Marie Anthony, accused of suffocating her with duct tape three summers ago. From the beginning, prosecutors painted the portrait of a narcissistic, reluctant mother. Anthony’s defense contended Caylee died by accident in the family pool.
The spotlight on the case was intense from the start, stoked by unrelenting, wall-to-wall cable news coverage and the steady drumbeat of family dysfunction and finger-pointing in the Anthony clan. Seats in the courtroom during the trial became so coveted that people waited in line at 4 a.m. to get a spot inside. Visitors made it a tourist attraction — a day at Universal Studios or Disney, followed by a stop by the courthouse.
Some drove the 10 miles outside downtown to see the Anthony family house on Hopesprings Drive, a soft pink one-story home, or to view the nearby patch of woods where Caylee’s remains were found in 2008. The spot has become a growing memorial site as visitors drop off stuffed animals, bouquets of flowers and American flags. Tuesday night, as a crowd gathered, one man stood vigil on a nearby sidewalk with a sign: In the End, Caylee is Still Gone.
Back in Casey Town, the media village that sprang up across from the courthouse, the dissection of the news began before the jury was even dismissed. As helicopters hovered overhead, anchors and videographers dashed in front of the crowds for live shots, zeroing in on the most vocal or tearful. One woman fainted. HLN television personality Nancy Grace, who drove much of the coverage and dubbed Anthony “tot mom,” was stunned, saying “somewhere out there, the devil is dancing tonight.’’
The of-the-moment worlds of Facebook and Twitter exploded with outrage within moments of the verdict. Celebrities took to twitter to weigh in, from Kim Kardashian and Carson Daly to Rosanne Barr and Ricki Lake.
More than an hour after the verdict, many lingered outside the courthouse, hoping to get a glimpse of the legal teams and Anthony’s parents. Police, on horseback and on foot, at the courthouse and in front of the Anthonys’ east Orange County home, asked people not to take to the streets. Anthony family attorney Mark Lippman acknowledged George and Cindy Anthony are in hiding after receiving death threats. Earlier, the family issued a statement calling the verdict “fair” and saying they hoped to rebuild their lives in private.
But for many who had come to see Anthony punished, the acquittal left them with a sense of justice denied. Michelle Bolduc Mesa flew nine hours from Frankfurt, Germany, to be at the courthouse for the last chapter.
“I was working at the Hollywood Mall when Adam Walsh was abducted. It left such an impression on me and since then I have been drawn to missing children cases, which is how Caylee’s case started,’’ said Mesa, a retired Naval nurse, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale.
She has been in Orlando since June 23 and spent a day in the courtroom watching the trial. At home in Schweinfurt, Germany, she watched it on YouTube. “I have been following the case from the very beginning so I knew I wanted to be here for the verdict.’’
In the end, the verdict created even more questions.
“The people are looking for the answer to a riddle. Who is Casey Anthony?’’ said University of Miami Law Professor Donald Jones, who has been following the case and teaches Constitutional Law. “The eyes tell us she is a sweet, innocent woman. The mind, the evidence says she murdered her child, shoved her in a car and went and partied. Is she a mother or a monster? And can she be both? Many of the people there wanted to personally participate in the judgment of Casey Anthony.”
But in the hours after the verdict, as the crowds finally thinned and the media glare dimmed , one man remembered the greatest tragedy: the death of a little girl.
He stood in front of the courthouse with a horn playing the plaintive notes of Amazing Grace.