Caylee Anthony

The victim, Caylee Anthony

As I write this post, many of us are reeling from the collective shock of watching the Casey Anthony trial and verdict. The trial is now over, with the jury declaring Casey “not guilty” on all the major counts.  I, like many other people, am left feeling sad, perplexed, shell-shocked, confused. What went wrong here that allowed a little girl to die. Why did the family not report her disappearance? Why did the jury seem to ignore the evidence implicating Casey?  Did Casey get away with murder?

Lies, Lies, Lies

Casey Anthony or her family did not report that two-year old Caylee was missing for 31 days. During this period and in the time before Caylee’s body was found in a wooded area near the Anthony home, Casey told a whole bunch of lies to both her family and the police. She was eventually convicted on four counts of lying to investigators and sentenced to time served plus a week or so.  The lies were detailed and specific and implicated a nanny named “Zanny” or Zaneida Gonzales, who purportedly took Caylee to teach Casey a lesson because she was not a good enough mother. A woman named Zaneida Gonzales was questioned and denied having anything to do with the case or ever meeting Caylee. As further evidence was uncovered, Casey’s lies changed in a systematic way to accommodate the new findings. Eventually, the defense ended up claiming that her father George had forced Casey to lie to cover up an accidental drowning. 

The troubling aspect of this case is that Casey’s lies may have helped her escape justice for her role in the death of her daughter. Because of the lies, there was a delay in finding Caylee’s remains. By the time they were discovered, they were so badly decomposed that the cause of death could not be adequately determined. The forensics could not tell us if Caylee died by homicide or accident. Although the prosecution does not actually have a burden to determine the cause of death, the jurors who spoke to the media said that this lack of certainty was a key factor in their “Not Guilty” verdict. The law is not designed to reward potential perpetrators for covering up evidence and misleading investigators, yet this is what seemed to have happened. 

Effect of the Media

Nancy Grace

Nancy Grace, HLN commentator with strong opinions about Casey

A law in Florida called the “Sunshine Law”, allowed the media to broadcast the entire trial live from the courthouse. This was accompanied by the opinions of various experts giving a play-by-play account and analysis of each side’s case.  If you so desired, you could have watched coverage of this trial almost 24 hours a day on HLN & other TV channels. Depending on your preference, you could watch Nancy Grace’s dramatic descriptions of Casey, whom she called “totmom” as the personification of all evil, or Dr Drew trying to balance the ethical stance of a psychologist with the sensationalism of a media personality. In fact, this was the first trial in which people could watch the whole proceedings live on cellphone, dramatically increasing international interest in the case. 

Did the added media scrutiny affect the juror’s decision-making?  Were they more hesitant to hand down a “Guilty” verdict when the whole world knew that the death was not proven to be a homicide? Did the slew of TV shows focusing on forensics, such as “CSI,” give them an unrealistic view of the strength of forensic evidence? According to Marcia Clark, the OJ Simpson prosecutor, now commenting for HLN, juries in the past have handed down guilty verdicts even when there are decomposed bodies or no bodies. This was in the absence of media scrutiny, however. Did the extra scrutiny make  the current jury overly cautious so that they held the prosecution to a higher standard than the law intended? We will never know, but, if true, this is troubling, since the media are not going away anytime soon.

The other impact of media scrutiny may have been to rile up the American public in anger and outrage spewed out voraciously on social media outlets such as Utube, Facebook, and Twitter. Nancy Grace, the HLN commentator and ex-prosecutor whose own fiancee was murdered, appeared to be a prime contributor to this outrage. In fact, after the verdict was handed down, she stated that “the devil is dancing tonight,” adding a religious overtone to the whole affair. Casey’s lawyers have expressed concern for her safety after the Anthony family received death threats by would-be vigilantes. While many of us are troubled by the verdict and possible miscarriage of justice, this is not an appropriate response. Vigilanteism can produce a cycle of violence, hatred, and retaliation that has no place in a civilized society.  A more constructive response is the movement to get “Caylee’s Law” on the books in some states. This law would require parents to report children missing to authorities within the first 24 hours. As a mental health professional, I think another constructive response is to educate the public about signs of child abuse and encourage people to feel more responsibility for identifying and intervening when they seen possible signs of abuse in their communities.

Anthony Family Secrets

George Anthony, Cindy Anthony, Lee Anthony

The Anthony Family appeared to have secrets

The other troubling aspect of this case is that we will never really know what went on behind closed doors in the Anthony home. In opening argument, defense attorney Jose Baez accused Casey’s father, George Anthony of sexually abusing her by having her perform oral sex on him when she was a young teen. Was this defense, apparently endorsed by Casey, a cynical attempt to frame George for the crime and make Casey into a sympathetic victim in the eyes of the jury. If Casey was truly a psychopath without feeling or empathy for others, this could have been the case. George’s statements and comments of neighbors appeared to show that he cared deeply for his granddaughter and was distraught to the point of threatening suicide when she could not be found. This is inconsistent with the defense’s claim that he forced Casey to cover up her death.

On the other hand, there was something that did not add up about the testimony of the other Anthony family members. Lee Anthony directly contradicted his mother on some points. Casey, stone-faced though much of the trial, cried heavily when Lee took the stand and reported being upset that nobody told him Casey was pregnant until the baby was delivered. A volunteer in the search for Caylee testified to having an affair with  George. George denied the affair, although evidence placed him at the woman’s apartment. Casey’s mother, Cindy, testified that she had searched on the family computer for “chloroform,” although other testimony put her at work at the time. My heart goes out to the Anthony family for the loss of their granddaughter and the circumstances of the case, yet something did not feel right. This family clearly had secrets and alliances. They  did not share practically and emotionally important information with all family members. There appeared to be a pattern of denial in which family members lied or pretended not to see things that should have been addressed. As a result, children were not adequately protected either physically or psychologically. I have heard this type of story often from my clients. When children are taught to conceal information to keep the family together or to keep up a public front, these children grow up insecure and without a sense of trust and safety or a moral anchor. As adults, they may, themselves, betray or abuse others or choose untrustworthy and abusive partners. In this way, negative patterns are transmitted to the next generation. Only with psychotherapy can we break this pattern. But seeking psychotherapy involves admitting there is a problem...

The Casey Anthony trial and verdict is consuming public entertainment and distraction from the stress caused by a massive economic recession and enduring unemployment. However, the real story is a tragedy of massive proportions involving potential child abuse, a focus on external appearances rather than inner character, the profit motive, the cult of fame and celebrity, and the competitive pressure on youth and American families. Are we raising our youth with unrealistic expectations of a fun, exciting, and glamorous lifestyle, which, in the current economic climate, is attainable only by the top 1 to 3 percent? Are we forcing everybody into the same mold, rather than valuing our children and teens for their uniqueness and encouraging them to express who they really are? Are are teens being raised without the family and community support to help them make good choices? And, if this is happening, what can each of us do today to make a change?

Melanie A. Greenberg, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice in Mill Valley, CA. She is also an author of more than 50 scientific publications on psychology, emotion, trauma, and health. Her recent focus is on the impact of media and society on mental and physical wellbeing. She is available for interviews & speaking engagements.

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