Courtroom tragedy watched by millions

By Guy Adams

The case against Casey Anthony might have all the ingredients of a daytime soap opera, but the trial which reaches its climax in Orlando, Florida, this week is playing more like a summer movie blockbuster.

Each day, hundreds of tourists begin lining up outside the Orange County courthouse shortly after 5am, hoping to get one of 50 seats in the public gallery of an air-conditioned room where Anthony has, since the end of May, been in the dock, accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter Caylee and dumping the child's body in a swamp.

From time to time, minor scuffles break out in the queue.

Two million Americans are tuning in for gavel-to-gavel coverage of this gripping trial. Their obsession is helping an obscure news channel called HLN suddenly leapfrog CNN and Fox news to the top of the cable ratings.

Breathless courtroom pundits such as Nancy Grace and Diane Dimond are revelling in a limelight they haven't enjoyed since the sensational trials of O. J. Simpson and Michael Jackson.

But with blanket coverage across every branch of the press, and fans excitedly planning "verdict parties" for the case's imminent conclusion, two perennial questions are now rearing their awkward heads: does the glare of tabloid publicity interfere with the administration of justice? And do courtroom cameras make for fair treatment of a defendant whose life is on the line?

There are certainly many dramatic layers to the case against Anthony, a 25-year-old single mother whose photogenic daughter Caylee went missing on June 16, 2008, two months before her third birthday - and whose body was found, with duct tape stuck to the decomposing flesh of her skull, three months later.

Prosecutors, who are seeking the death penalty and have charged her with seven serious offences, including first degree murder, claim that Anthony used chloroform to render the child unconscious, and then put tape over her nose and mouth and threw her in the boot of a car to suffocate.

Several days later, they allege, she dumped the body on unoccupied land near her family's Orlando home.

In the weeks after Caylee's death, Anthony allegedly told her parents, who she lived with, that the child was being looked after by a nanny.

Then, according to photos uploaded to Facebook, she spent several nights visiting nightclubs and attending house-parties, in what the prosecution has dubbed a macabre celebration of freedom she had been denied since her daughter's birth.

The child wasn't reported missing to police for almost a month.

Helping prosecution efforts to portray Anthony as a sort of scarlet woman is an incident during the police investigation of the case, when an officer was suspended after it emerged that he had exchanged inappropriate text messages with the suspect.

The defence argues that Caylee drowned in the swimming pool at the family home, and that Casey and her father, George, panicked and decided to cover the death up.

They have chosen not to ask Casey, who pleads not guilty to all charges, to take the stand, and in cross-examination their theory has been vehemently denied by George Anthony.

A number of side-plots have added to the soap opera nature of proceedings, for example, the identity of Caylee's biological father is not known.

Both George and Casey's brother Lee have submitted to DNA tests which have rebutted rumours that the little girl was the unwanted product of an incestuous relationship.

George Anthony has, meanwhile, been accused of sexually abusing Casey from the age of 8 (he denies the suggestion).

It has further emerged that in the January after his granddaughter went missing, he considered taking his own life, and even wrote a suicide note which has been presented as evidence in court.

The defence has also tried to link Caylee's grandmother, Cindy, to the child's death. They have discovered, for example, that she conducted an internet search for chloroform around the time of the girl's disappearance.

The defence has also done its best to discredit macabre testimony from several witnesses who claim to have smelled rotting flesh coming from Casey's car, saying it was bags of rubbish which had become overheated in the Florida sunshine.

As the trial reaches its final stages, with closing arguments starting today, public opinion is deeply divided about the case.

Although most observers believe evidence against Anthony to be compelling, a small vociferous minority insist she is the victim of trial by tabloid media.

One such supporter, a waiter called Matthew Bartlett, was last week jailed for six days for contempt of court, after making an obscene gesture to prosecutor Jeff Ashton from the public gallery.

The incident, which might have jeopardised the entire trial, neatly demonstrated how the media circus, stoked by the existence of cameras in court, can interfere with the administration of justice.

Courts in 48 states allow trials to be broadcast (federal courts generally do not) under certain conditions.

TRIALS BY TELEVISION

OJ SIMPSON
(Jan 25, 1995-Oct 3, 1995)

* Charge: Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman

* Verdict: Not guilty

The trial of actor and former American football star OJ Simpson was the TV event of the year. As many as 142 million are thought to have watched the verdict. Many legislators felt the publicity prejudiced the case and judges have been cautious allowing cameras into celebrity trials since.

LOUISE WOODWARD
(Oct 7, 1997-Nov 10, 1997)

* Charge: Murder, downgraded to manslaughter at appeal

* Verdict: Guilty

Nearly 1.7 million people in Britain watched the final sentencing of the 19-year-old British au pair. Woodward was accused of killing 8-month-old Matthew Eappen, while babysitting him in Boston. She was convicted of second-degree murder but at appeal her sentence was downgraded to manslaughter and she was freed.

PHIL SPECTOR
(Mar 19, 2007-Sep 26, 2007)

* Charge: Murder

* Verdict: Trial collapses; second trial in 2009 finds him guilty

The record producer famous for working with The Beatles was accused of killing actress Lana Clarkson at his home in 2003. The presence of his new 26-year-old wife, Rachelle, in the courtroom attracted much media attention. The jury returned a hung verdict and the trial collapsed. Spector's second trial, in 2009, was not televised, but cameras captured his reaction to the guilty verdict.

MICHAEL JACKSON
(Feb 28, 2005-Jun 13, 2005)

* Charge: Several counts of child molestation

* Verdict: Not guilty

The late king of pop faced trial after the family of 15-year-old Gavin Arvizo accused him of child molestation. The judge banned cameras in a bid to stop the trial becoming a media circus. But E! staged daily re-enactments of the trial.

- INDEPENDENT

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a2 at 18 Sep 2014 01:14:29 Processing Time: 616ms