ORANGE COUNTY, FLORIDA – In a case that became a national sensation on TV, Casey Anthony was acquitted Tuesday of murdering her 2-year-old daughter in what prosecutors portrayed as a cold-blooded attempt to free herself to party and be with her boyfriend.
Officials said Casey is back in the Orange County jail and remains in protective custody.
“As to the charge, first-degree murder, we the jury find the defendant not guilty,” read the court clerk.
After a trial of a month and a half, the jury took less than 11 hours to find Casey not guilty of first-degree murder, aggravated manslaughter and aggravated child abuse. She was convicted of four counts of lying to investigators who were looking into the June 2008 disappearance of her daughter, Caylee Marie Anthony.
Tears welled in Casey’s eyes, her face reddened, her lips trembled, and she began breathing heavily as she listened to the verdict. Casey, 25, could have gotten the death penalty if she had been convicted of murder.
After the verdict was read, Casey hugged her attorney Jose Baez and later mouthed the words “thank you” to him. Prosecutor Jeff Ashton, meanwhile, shook his head in disbelief.
Casey’s parents, Cindy and George Anthony left the courtroom without speaking to her as the judge thanked the jury.
Juror number seven, one of the seven women on the panel, appeared to cry as she left court.
Once the jury left, Casey hugged her attorneys and squealed out loud. The lawyers high-fived one another, and minutes later Casey laughed as she was fingerprinted on the convictions for lying to detectives.
Many in the crowd of about 500 people outside the courthouse reacted with anger after the verdict was read, chanting, “Justice for Caylee!” One man yelled, “Baby killer!”
Given the relative speed with which the jury came back with a verdict, many court-watchers were expecting Casey to be convicted in the killing, and they were stunned by the outcome.
Sentencing was set for Thursday. Casey could get up to one year behind bars on each count of lying to investigators. But since she has been in jail for nearly three years already, she could walk free.
The case played out on national television almost from the moment Caylee was reported missing three years ago, and it became a macabre sensation as testimony turned to tape marks on the child’s face and the alleged smell of decayed flesh inside the trunk of Casey’s car.
After the verdict, Casey’s attorney, Jose Baez, took the criminal justice system and the media to task, saying the outcome should make people realize “you cannot convict someone until they’ve had their day in court.”
“We have the greatest constitution in the world, and if the media and other members of the public do not respect it, it will become meaningless,” he said.
State’s Attorney Lawson Lamar said: “We’re disappointed in the verdict today because we know the facts and we’ve put in absolutely every piece of evidence that existed.” The prosecutor lamented the lack of hard evidence, saying: “This is a dry-bones case. Very, very difficult to prove. The delay in recovering little Caylee’s remains worked to our considerable disadvantage.”
The jurors would not talk to the media.
Caylee’s disappearance went unreported by Casey for a month. The child’s decomposed body was eventually found in the woods near her grandparents’ home six months after she was last seen. A medical examiner was never able to establish how she died.
Prosecutors contended that Casey, a single mother living with her parents, suffocated Caylee with duct tape because she wanted to be free to hit the nightclubs and spend time with her boyfriend.
Defense attorneys argued that Caylee accidentally drowned in the family swimming pool, and that Casey panicked and hid the body because of the traumatic effects of being sexually abused by her father.
The case became a macabre tourist attraction in Orlando. People camped outside for seats in the courtroom, and scuffles broke out among those desperate to watch the drama unfold.
Because the case got so much media attention in Orlando, jurors were brought in from the Tampa Bay area and sequestered for the entire trial, during which they listened to more than 33 days of testimony and looked at 400 pieces of evidence. Casey did not take the stand.
“While we’re happy for Casey, there are no winners in this case,” Baez said after the verdict. “Caylee has passed on far, far too soon and what my driving force has been for the last three years has been always to make sure that there has been justice for Caylee and Casey because Casey did not murder Caylee. It’s that simple. And today our system of justice has not dishonored her memory by a false conviction.”
In closing arguments, prosecutor Linda Drane-Burdick showed the jury two side-by-side images. One showed Casey smiling and partying in a nightclub during the first month Caylee was missing. The other was the tattoo Casey she got a day before law enforcement learned of the child’s disappearance: the Italian words for “beautiful life.”
“At the end of this case, all you have to ask yourself is whose life was better without Caylee?” Burdick asked. “This is your answer.”
Prosecutors also focused heavily on an odor in the trunk of Casey’s car, which forensics experts said was consistent with the smell of human decay.
But the defense argued that the air analysis could not be duplicated, that no one could prove a stain found in the trunk was caused by Caylee’s remains, and that maggots in the compartment had come from a bag of trash.
Prosecutors hammered away at the lies Casey told when the child was missing: She told her parents that she couldn’t produce Caylee because the girl was with a nanny named Zenaida Gonzalez, (Zanny) a woman who doesn’t exist; that she and her daughter were spending time with a rich boyfriend who doesn’t exist; and that Zanny had been hospitalized after an out-of-town traffic crash and that they were spending time with her.
Baez said during closing arguments that the prosecutors’ case was so weak they tried to portray Casey as “a lying, no-good slut” and that their forensic evidence was based on a “fantasy.” He said Caylee’s death was “an accident that snowballed out of control.”
He contended that the toddler drowned and that when Casey panicked, her father, a former police officer, decided to make the death look like a murder by putting duct tape on the girl’s mouth and dumping the body in the woods a quarter-mile away. Anthony’s father denied both the cover-up and abuse claims.
Among the trial spectators was 51-year-old Robin Wilkie, who said she has spent $3,000 on hotels and food since arriving June 10 from Lake Minnetonka, Minn. She tallied more than 100 hours standing in line to wait for tickets and got into the courtroom 15 times to see Casey.
“True crime has become a unique genre of entertainment,” Wilkie said. “Her stories are so extreme and fantastic, it’s hard to believe they’re true, but that’s what engrosses people. This case has sex, lies and videotapes — just like on reality TV.”
The Anthonys’ attorney Mark Lippman released a statement on behalf of the family on Tuesday reading:
“The family hopes that they will be given the time by the media to reflect on this verdict and decide the best way to move forward privately. While the family may never know what has happened to Caylee Marie Anthony, they now have closure for this chapter of their life. They will now begin the long process of rebuilding their lives.
Despite the baseless defense chosen by Casey Anthony, the family believes that the Jury made a fair decision based on the evidence presented, the testimony presented, the scientific information presented and the rules that were given to them by the Honorable Judge Perry to guide them.
The family hopes that they will be given the time by the media to reflect on this verdict and decide the best way to move forward privately.
The family also wanted the public to know that if anyone wanted to honor Caylee by leaving stuffed animals or other toys at any area near their home, that they would prefer those items be donated in Caylee’ s name to families in need, religious centers, or any other entity where the toys would be appreciated.”