07.04.11

In the Jury's Hands

After six weeks of theatrics, Casey Anthony’s fate now rests with 12 strangers. Diane Dimond on the fiery closing arguments that almost got lawyers jailed—and may have sealed the case.

The court of public opinion may have made up its mind about the guilt or innocence of Casey Anthony long ago, but on the 23rd floor of the courthouse in Orlando, Florida, her life is now officially in the hands of the only people who matter: the sequestered jury that has been considering the case for more than six weeks.

Eager to get home, the jury is done with days off: The closing arguments took 11 and a half hours over rare sessions on Sunday and Independence Day. The marathon was punctuated by passionately delivered presentations from both sides and a sharp explosion of temper from the lawyers that very nearly got two of them booted from the proceedings by an increasingly impatient Judge Belvin Perry. 

As it all unfolded, the elephant in the room (as defense attorney Cheney Mason put it) was Casey Anthony herself. She had chosen not to testify, and to many observers that was incomprehensible.

“It’s not up to the defendant to prove anything,” Mason told jurors. “Remember, you must not view this as an admission of guilt or be influenced in any way by her decision. That’s a promise you made when you took the oath here.” He reminded jurors that his client is facing the death penalty.

As is custom, the state went first in closing arguments, and prosecutor Jeff Ashton eloquently delivered a compelling, easy-to-follow storyline.

He depicted the mindset of a young single mother who simply no longer wanted the responsibility of motherhood, a person who was skilled in living a life of lies.

“For two years she pretends to have a job and pretends to have a nanny and everything seems fine. But Casey is with Caylee 24/7…because when her parents think she’s at work, she’s not, she’s with Caylee,” Ashton said. She simply longed for the fun-filled lives of her friends.

Ashton described Anthony as having an intelligence for taking a lie as far as it could go and, when it didn’t work anymore, her talent to instantaneously weave another fantastic tale to divert attention.  

“Call it Casey 3.0, “ Ashton told the panel. Her lies, he said, update themselves for every situation. The prosecutor specifically referred to things Anthony told law enforcement immediately following her mother’s report to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department that her granddaughter Caylee had been missing for 31 days.

Lead prosecutor Linda Drane-Burdick told the jurors, “There’s nothing about Casey Anthony that can’t be explained with two words.” And she slowly drawled: “Pathological liar.”

Just hours after law enforcement became involved, Anthony took detectives to her supposed job at Universal Studios to retrieve a cell phone that she said had the latest phone number of her nanny (named Zanny). “She walks with great confidence to her office,” Ashton told the jury. She took officers past security, across the parking lot, down a long hallway. Until finally “she turns around, puts her hands in her pockets and says, 'OK, I don’t work here.' ”

That scene, Ashton said, was indicative of her ability to blithely stick with a lie to the bitter end, then shrug her shoulders and walk away when caught.

The only way Casey’s lies work is if Caylee isn’t talking.

But there came a time when the ruse at home would no longer work.

“The only way Casey’s lies work is if Caylee isn’t talking," said Ashton. "Now she’s almost … 3, and she’s starting to become verbal, starting to talk. She can’t cooperate [with the imaginary lifestyle] … because she doesn’t know enough to lie. At some point she is going to say something to someone,” Ashton told the jury in almost hushed tones. “Someone is going to ask her about Zanny and she’s going to say, ’No. Tony.’ ” That was a reference to Tony Lazarro, the last boyfriend Casey had begun to spend a lot of time with.

According to the prosecution, Casey Anthony’s pattern of lying was concocted and perfected to keep her mother, Cindy, at bay. Casey pretended she got a promotion at Universal, to the position of event coordinator, which required to her be out at night. She often left Caylee with her mother, who was willing to baby-sit. Sometimes Casey would tell her mother she and the child were spending the night at the imaginary Zanny’s. In fact, they were with one of Casey’s various boyfriends. 
Then she met the handsome Lazarro at a party. “He has this life,” Ashton intoned to the jury with his arms spread wide. “He’s free. He’s a club promoter. He’s out at night with the loud music … [with] young people doing what they want to do … nothing wrong with that. But it’s not the life Casey has, because Casey is a mom.”

Grandma Cindy took Caylee during a week’s vacation during the summer of 2008, and Casey saw her clear choice, said Ashton: “A life tethered to a child or a life free to be 22.”

Her choice? According to Ashton, it was to sacrifice one of two things—her dreams and the life she wanted, or her child. The prosecutor maintained, “Evidence shows she sacrificed her child.”

It’s important to note that neither side offered specific proof about the way in which Caylee died. The skeletonized state of the baby’s remains gave up no clues to her cause of death.

The prosecution’s scenario involved homemade chloroform and strips of duct tape placed over the child’s nose and mouth to suffocate her. “We can only hope that the chloroform was used first, before the tape was applied, so that Caylee went peacefully,” Ashton said, while insisting it was premeditated murder.

The defense spoke of a backyard “accidental drowning that snowballed out of control.” But the only people said to have been present for the accident were Casey and her father. George Anthony testified that the drowning accident never happened.

Lead defense attorney Jose Baez got off to a rambling and clumsy start, spending too much time telling the jury what he was going to tell them and not enough time delivering organized thoughts.

For his presentation, a smoothed-out Baez hammered three themes: the state’s “fantasy forensics,” the villainous Grandpa George’s supposed role in disposing of the body, and the idea of reasonable doubt. And he worried out loud that the jury might fall victim to their emotions.

“Their strategy was to … paint Casey Anthony as a slut, a party girl, and as someone who lies,” Baez said, and when he turned to point at his client she wiped away tears with a wad of tissue the size of her fist. “If you hate her and you think she’s a lying, no-good slut, you’ll start to look at the evidence in a different way. And that’s not what the law says you should do.”

As compelling as the defense’s closing argument was at times, it was still intertwined with what the state called “a trip down the rabbit hole.” A shaky main theory placing Casey’s father at center stage: a father and grandfather—a man with a law-enforcement background—who had decided to cover up an accidental drowning? And to manipulate the situation so his daughter would go on trial for her life?

“The evidence points to one person and one person only,” Baez insisted during his attack on George. “And he can get up here and lie all he wants, and he can dance around the truth. And depending on who’s asking the questions—whether it’s this laughing guy here …” and he angrily punched the air with his finger, pointing at a broadly smiling Jeff Ashton sitting at the prosecution table.  Ashton jumped to his feet and yelled, “Objection, your honor!”

Judge Perry immediately ordered the jury out of the room, and with a flourish he peeled off his black robes and headed out the door to look at the videotape of the moment. He seemed ready to toss the lawyers out or to level contempt charges. But like contrite schoolboys, both men offered apologies and took the judge’s warning that he would accept no more antics, and the closing arguments resumed.

“George is not a Machiavellian self-interested monster,” Ashton said calmly on the last day of rebuttal. “People don’t make accidents look like murder. That’s absurd.” George’s suicide attempt and eight-page letter showed that “this was a man in pain," Ashton said. "This is the cry of a man who just doesn’t understand the world anymore.”

The defense also took the jury through a convoluted recitation of the actions of the man who found Caylee’s remains. “A morally bankrupt individual named Roy Kronk,” as Baez labeled him. The defense darkly hinted that Kronk had somehow gotten Caylee’s body and hidden it, waiting for the reward fund to swell. Baez seemed to say Kronk tired of the game and finally brought Caylee’s body back to her swampy grave.

“You can’t trust the evidence, and you can’t trust the scene. Reasonable doubt is living and breathing in this case!” Baez said in an ominous tone.

Ashton countered with graphic crime-scene photos of the child’s skull covered with leaf litter and entwined with plant growth. “The only thing that staged this scene is Mother Nature herself. That skull had been there for six months.”

When her daughter’s skull was displayed on the courtroom monitors, Casey Anthony looked away. She lowered her head into her fist as jurors leaned forward to peer at the screens. No one mentioned the incestuous child abuse Casey said she had suffered, because the judge had ruled it had not been proved during trial.

After the defense’s closing argument, prosecutor Linda Drane Burdick got the last word. She told the jury it all came down to one final question: “Whose life was better without Caylee?” Drane Burdick punched a console button on her podium and Cindy’s final call to 911 burst forward: “I need to find her! We’re talking about a 3-year-old child!” Drane Burdick repeated the question. “Whose life was better without Caylee? That’s the only question you need to answer in considering why Caylee Marie Anthony was left on the side of the road—dead.”

Another punch at the console brought up a split screen of Casey Anthony dancing in a “hot body” contest on the left—and on the right a close-up of the ”Bella Vita” (Beautiful Life) tattoo she got in the days after her child died.

The prosecutor ended with three words: “There’s your answer.”