Our long national soap opera is over. Our daily dose of Anthony family dysfunction has dried up.
Like junkies looking for a fix, we've been cut off. José Baez may be heading to Hollywood and legal immortality. Casey Anthony is leaving jail. The trial of this young century is done.
Soon the national news corps will make its way to the next big story, and the sprawling makeshift media village across from the Orange County Courthouse will be an empty lot again — Casey's ghost town.
As Orlando returns to the business of entertaining tourists rather than talk-show hosts, though, two reflective questions linger: Why did this community and the world seize upon this particular case? And after three years, what have we learned as a result?
Bill Sheaffer, the veteran Orlando defense attorney who commented on the case for WFTV-Channel 9, explained that the story of the young mother who lied and failed to report the disappearance of her 2-year-old daughter coincided with the broad use of social networking as major means of communication.
"I think it was a unique time in history with the confluence of how people got their news," said Sheaffer, explaining that 11 blogs he wrote on the Casey Anthony case drew 500,000 followers. "This was the O.J. Simpson case of the computer and social-media age."
Certainly, the trial's signature tweets and chats brought the public's interaction with media covering the case to a new level, but other dramatic elements were in place long before the trial started in May.
Susan Constantine, a body-language expert and jury consultant who watched most of the trial in court, explained that Casey Anthony's lies early on created an immediate audience, asking: How could the disappearance of a child not be reported immediately?
"It pulled on the heartstrings of every mother out there," Constantine said. "I think we just couldn't relate. People were just wondering, 'What? Are you joking me?' "
Add in the dramatic elements of Casey Anthony's family, the idea that she was seeking freedom to be with her boyfriend, the fabricated nanny and her "Bella Vita" tattoo, and the story became better than fiction.
It was visual too, thanks in large part to Florida's public-records laws governing pretrial discovery and the willingness of the Anthony family to sell images to the national media. Caylee Marie photos became iconic: an always-smiling, seemingly happy and healthy child. These contrasted with those of her mother shown clubbing and dancing with friends in the days after Caylee disappeared.
"I think the fascination is that we have an attractive young white female, caught in a web of lies," Constantine said. "Sex, lies, cover-up. With the media attention, it just snowballed out of control."
By the time the trial started, the Casey Anthony story had a full cast of rich characters, including blemished family members such as George, Cindy and Lee Anthony. Her principal attorneys, Baez and Cheney Mason, played the roles of brash and defiant litigators, determined to save a life.
And when Baez delivered his opening statement with accusations against George and Lee Anthony, the intrigue grew deeper. As the trial wore on, a television audience started to appreciate Chief Judge Belvin Perry's no-nonsense handling of the case.
Many also identified with Assistant State Attorney Jeff Ashton, a crafty veteran who knows his science but also became the rough equivalent of a prosecutorial hit man set on eliminating defense witnesses.
"It was a horrible crime, an unthinkable crime, and then you had all these characters as part of the drama," said Mike Foley, a master lecturer in the University of Florida's Department of Journalism. "It was an incredible cast of interesting people."
Donna Marini, from Altamonte Springs, sat in on the trial for most of the six-week span, but she was drawn to the case long before the jury was picked.
"I lived with it for the last three years," Marini said. "It was like your favorite TV show, but live, so I was really interested in seeing how it was drawn out."
Marini was one of many left disillusioned with the jury's verdict, finding Casey Anthony not guilty of the most serious charges involving her daughter's death, including first-degree murder.
"I don't think we learned anything," she said. "We learned we can get away with murder."
Sheaffer, too, expected Anthony to be convicted of charges more serious than lying to law enforcement. He said so many times on the air and in public. So did many other pundits and legal analysts.
That kind of pretrial publicity led the defense team to question — before jury selection — whether Anthony could get an unbiased jury anywhere in the state.
The greatest trial take-away for Sheaffer, though, was the fact that the rights of the accused were upheld at the same time that free speech thrived.
"Despite the broad coverage of a criminal trial with a popular opinion that the verdict should have been guilty, the system overcame the input of public opinion," Sheaffer said. "It [the trial] validated the system. The jury was free from those influences, and the system worked."
Media role questioned
From the start, the media — local and national — had a major role in the case. First, news teams helped get the word out that young Caylee Marie was missing. Then, after her remains were found, they reported every aspect and detail of the case.
When the trial ended, not everyone saw an upside in the way many in the media conducted themselves during the lead-up to the trial and the proceedings. Even though broad-reaching problems such as the economy and deficit reduction likely have greater impacts on individuals, many media outlets devoted their attention to Casey Anthony.
"People are more interested in people than policy, generally speaking," said Deana Rohlinger, an associate professor of sociology at Florida State University. "There's always more important stories than what gets covered."
With so much competition, media organizations must seek stories that "will grab our attention in just a few seconds" and deliver messages "easily understood by a very broad audience," Rohlinger said
She noted that cases involving children have "staying power."
In the trial's aftermath, Foley found the increasing willingness of some organizations to pay for individuals' stories troubling, especially during a time when mainstream news organizations are struggling financially and may be forced to weigh journalistic ethics against the bottom line.
"There's news organizations paying for video, which is horrific," he said. "The National Enquirer has been doing it for years, paying for stories."
He explained that the problem with someone getting paid $25,000 for their story is that the subject may feel compelled to "tell you a $25,000 story. It's just flat wrong."
Even Judge Perry questioned the media's role in the case, saying the 24-hour news cycle "causes one to wonder and ponder, 'What is news/journalism anymore?' At some point in this nation, we're going to have to decide what is real journalism?"
Because of the saturation coverage, many had felt a personal attachment to the case since the toddler vanished. They sought the truth about what happened to Caylee, protesting in front of the Anthony home after the story broke in the summer of 2008 and outside the courthouse last week when the verdicts came down.
The irony is that the only person who knows the truth for sure, Casey Anthony, is now a convicted liar.
"I don't think we've had the time yet to figure out what this all means," Foley said. "A lot of it will depend on what she does. There will be a lesson here because this was a big, big deal."
Constantine said this case should teach us "not to be so emotional, not to be so influenced by the sensationalism we see on television."
Amber Block of Orlando sat in on the trial nine times to watch it firsthand. She was drawn by the story line and the desire to see justice done.
"No one has ever seen a case like this," said Block, 23. "You see murders all the time, but this has got twists and turns . It doesn't make sense that we don't know how she exactly got killed. The 'not guilty' really frustrates all of us."
When asked what she has learned from the trial, Block said: "It's bad that people can actually get off. It's sick. It's just like O.J. Simpson got off."