It’s hard to believe that almost a year has passed since the verdict in the trial of Casey Anthony, who was accused of murdering her two-year-old daughter, Caylee Anthony. The acquittal of Casey Anthony, which generated strong emotional responses — hear, e.g., this 10-second voicemail — still fascinates, and infuriates, many people.
At least that’s what I concluded after attending a very interesting event at Pace Law School last night, a panel discussion on the Casey Anthony case (for which I received CLE credit, yay). The auditorium was packed, and the energy in the crowd — and on the stage, where the passionate panelists sparred with each other — was palpable.
It was fascinating to see Jeff Ashton, the lead prosecutor, and J. Cheney Mason, co-counsel for Casey Anthony (with Jose Baez), essentially re-argue the case. They were joined by a celebrated television jurist, Judge Alex Ferrer (aka Judge Alex), and a noted novelist and law professor, Thane Rosenbaum of Fordham Law School.
So what was discussed at the panel? If you’re looking for a quick primer on the Casey Anthony prosecution, so you can sound intelligent the next time your daytime-television-addicted aunt asks you about it at Thanksgiving, keep reading….
Thane Rosenbaum, who did a superb job moderating the panel, began with a revelation: the jury foreperson from the Casey Anthony case was supposed to have been a surprise guest for the evening, before canceling at the last minute. His family didn’t want him to be appearing in public, in light of all the hatred that has been directed at the jurors. (Rosenbaum captured some of that hatred by reading aloud from letters sent to the jury after Casey Anthony’s acquittal.)
Rosenbaum asked the panelists: why did this case capture the public imagination the way it did? Alex Ferrer, aka Judge Alex, gave a straightforward response: if a three-year-old child disappears and the child’s mother doesn’t tell anyone about it for 30 days, isn’t that going to grab people’s attention?
J. Cheney Mason, one of Anthony’s defense attorneys, had a different theory. Speaking in his rich Southern accent, he growled that “the media created this [spectacle], and the media capitalized on it.” He complained that there’s no training or credentialing for journalists — in a world where “you need a license to cut hair!”
Mason’s former nemesis, prosecutor Jeff Ashton, offered a more measured — and in my opinion, a more reasonable and sophisticated — view. He noted that it’s too easy to blame the media, which was just giving the public what they wanted. He pointed out that in a world with a 24-hour news cycle, reporting the facts doesn’t take up enough time, so the remaining hours get filled with opinion — and bloviating. Even though she was very pro-prosecution, and therefore on his side, Ashton singled out and criticized Nancy Grace for her sensationalistic coverage of the trial.
(Discussion of the media spilled over into an interesting digression on cameras in the courtroom. Rosenbaum asked the panelists whether the presence of cameras caused them to act differently. Ashton said that, once the trial is underway, the cameras don’t make a difference: the lawyers are playing to that jury of 12, not to the people watching at home, because it’s that jury of 12 that will decide the case.)
The conversation then turned to what everyone who has heard about the case wants to know about: why didn’t Casey Anthony report her daughter’s death to the authorities at an earlier point in time? And why did this jury acquit her of murder and manslaughter charges? (As close followers of the case will recall, Anthony was convicted on four counts of providing false information to law enforcement officers.)
Cheney Mason said that when Caylee died, Casey went into total denial, and she responded to the traumatic situation by simply shutting down. As noted by the defense’s grief expert, people grieve in very different ways. The fact that Casey responded to her daughter’s death in a way that some people might find inexplicable does not make Casey guilty of killing her child. As Mason pointed out, the jury was not charged with evaluating Casey Anthony’s fitness as a mother; rather, the jury was asked to decide how, where, and when Caylee died. Because they couldn’t answer those questions, they did the right thing: they acquitted Casey Anthony.
Jeff Ashton, seated next to Mason, did not react well to his adversary’s claims. It was clear that Ashton still feels very passionately about the case — which he has written about in a book, by the way, Imperfect Justice: Prosecuting Casey Anthony (affiliate link). Responding to Mason’s citation of expert testimony about people grieving differently, he argued that “experts have a habit of telling us to take common sense and to throw it out the window.” It’s simple common sense: if a child disappears and the mother doesn’t report the child missing for 30 days, and the child is later found dead, the mother was responsible.
Ashton added that Casey Anthony was tested for the existence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the test came back negative. He also pointed out that there was no evidence whatsoever for the claim made by Jose Baez in his dramatic opening statement that Casey had been sexually abused as a child — which, according to Baez, caused Casey to develop some bizarre coping mechanisms that explained how she acted after Caylee’s death (e.g., by repressing deeply painful experiences).
(Speaking of Baez’s opening statement, Cheney Mason revealed that he disagreed with his co-counsel’s decision to raise the allegation that Casey Anthony was sexually abused by her father, George Anthony. You can read more about that in the Orlando Sentinel’s write-up of the panel.)
Following the remarks of Mason and Ashton, Judge Alex essentially cast his lot with the prosecution: “I believe Casey Anthony murdered her daughter.” He pointed out that the questions raised by Mason — how exactly did Caylee die, and where, and when — are not elements of the crime of murder under Florida law. People can be and are prosecuted all the time for murder even in cases where a body is never found.
At the same time, Ferrer did not express outrage at the jury’s verdict. He argued for procedural due process, contending that justice guarantees a fair process, not any particular result. (This reminded me of Professor Alan Dershowitz’s reaction to the verdict.) Ferrer went on to criticize the overly harsh condemnation of the jury in the days after the verdict, noting that we don’t want to discourage people from jury service.
Even though the jury went against him in the end, Jeff Ashton echoed Ferrer’s sentiments about respecting their verdict. Citing the statements of the jurors who have spoken about their decision, Ashton explained that this particular jury wanted a definitive medical cause of death for Caylee Anthony. Because the prosecution unfortunately wasn’t able to provide that in this case — Caylee’s body was decomposed when it was found — the jury acquitted. And that was their right as jurors.
So what really did happen to Caylee Anthony? Cheney Mason at one point stated, “I know what happened, but I’m not at liberty to say.”
(And O.J. Simpson, as soon as he gets out of prison, will resume his search for Nicole Brown Simpson’s real killer.)
Near the end of the discussion, in an effort to provide some balance — like the Above the Law readership, which voted heavily in favor of Casey Anthony’s guilt, the discussion did tilt pro-prosecution — moderator Thane Rosenbaum showed a heartbreaking photograph of Casey and Caylee Anthony together, smiling. He pointed out that there was no evidence in the case that Casey didn’t love her daughter, and there was no evidence that Casey ever abused or harmed Caylee.
“There was no evidence that Casey Anthony did anything bad to Caylee,” said prosecutor Jeff Ashton. “Except for murder her.”
Exhibit A: The Casey Anthony Trial [Trials and Error / Pace Law School]
Casey Anthony: Cheney Mason distances himself from opening statement [The TV Guy / Orlando Sentinel]
Anthony prosecutor, atty discuss the case in NYC [Associated Press via Wall Street Journal]