Sunday, June 26, 2011

Dear Jurisprudence: I Like What I See

Casey Anthony in court
Reality TV sucks. I never watch those fake shows about dingy pawn shops, creepy hoarders, tough-guy jobs, hostile cooking competitions, arch-enemy hairstylists, snarky fashionistas, squabbling housewives or ruthless people in a remote jungle forming alliances to “survive.” As the participants ridicule each other and bark orders in a quest for the requisite 15 minutes of fame, they’re all fired up with implied violence or, in some instances, outright viciousness. But I have to confess that one type of non-fiction programming always grabs me: criminal trials. The violence that informs these broadcasts is authentic, albeit offscreen.

I faithfully followed the O.J. Simpson proceedings in 1995, when he was found not guilty of killing his ex-wife and her friend. And right now, I'm among the millions of Americans with eyes trained on an Orlando courtroom, where 25-year-old Casey Anthony – who had been living at home with parents George and Cindy – is accused of murdering her toddler daughter, Caylee. The trial has been going on for a month. The prosecution recently rested and the defense is now focusing on every imaginable twist to prove her innocence and, failing that, to avoid a death sentence. The key to the latter result is whether or not there was indeed premeditation, as listed on Casey’s seven-count indictment.

Accordingly, this week’s bombshell came when Cindy claimed that months before Caylee’s June 2008 disappearance she was the one who Googled the word “chloroform,” but not the phrase “how to make chloroform.” These computer searches, previously attributed to the defendant, had included notions such as household products that can be transformed into weapons and “neck-breaking.” The state’s theory is that Caylee was subdued with the anaesthetic substance, then suffocated with duct tape placed over her mouth and nose, before being stuffed into two plastic garbage bags. The remains allegedly were kept in the trunk of Casey’s white Pontiac Sunfire long enough to create an odor of decomposition that George Anthony and others later detected, along with maggots. This smell is an issue of major contention, as are hair, fiber and DNA evidence. Experts in entomology, chemistry and botany have testified. I don’t necessarily understand the science, but their logic is invariably fascinating. 

Judge Perry with prosecutor Jeff Ashton (on right)
Equally interesting to watch are the machinations of sly lead defense attorney Jose Baez – no relation to Joan that I know of – and DA Jeff Ashton, a brilliant eminence grise. The no-nonsense judge, Belvin Perry, has frequently reprimanded Baez for “discovery” violations, which means introducing evidence that hasn’t yet been shared with the other side via depositions or cross-examination. The off-camera jury is frequently dismissed while the lawyers argue minuscule points during sidebars the audience in televisionland can’t hear. Other debates have been conducted in full view and earshot. Although Perry wants to speed up the process by running Saturday sessions, recesses are rampant. This stop-and-start schedule may sound tedious to the uninitiated. I’m enthralled by every little detail. And the details are increasingly salacious.

In his opening statement, Baez claimed that Caylee’s death was the result of an accidental drowning in the swimming pool in mid-June 2008 and covered up by George, with complicity from a traumatized Casey. But how to explain that she then went on a 31-day whirlwind of promiscuity and partying (even getting a tattoo that reads “beautiful life” in Italian), leaving devoted grandmother Cindy to worry about the sudden absence of the little girl? When the car was discovered, Casey told her parents that the child had been abducted by a nanny (Zenaida Fernandez-Gonzalez) nicknamed Zanny. The Anthonys mounted a frantic search, but the story began to unravel when police learned that Casey had been telling lies. She was not employed at Universal Studios in Orlando, as her parents believed. Also, the actual Zanny had never met her or Caylee. Later, one of Casey’s four arrests was for using credit cards stolen from a friend. Her trauma presumably has fanned the flames of consumerism.

Attorney Jose Baez confers with his client, Casey Anthony
“If you can't convince ‘em, confuse em,” is how one TV commentator assessed the defense strategy. In attempting to establish reasonable doubt, Baez has suggested that Casey’s behavior stemmed from early sexual abuse by her father and her older brother Lee, who said his parents never told him that she was pregnant with Caylee. He cried on the stand while describing his hurt and anger. After endless efforts to poke holes in the government’s forensics testimony, Baez is currently trotting out an array of witnesses, including Cindy and Lee, to intimate that the Anthonys constitute one helluva dysfunctional family. On the other hand, they come across as sympathetic. Who would want to be subjected to the airing of so much dirty laundry? As the ugly headlines proliferated in 2008, George seriously contemplated suicide and was hospitalized. But as the Anthony clan changes its tune in court, probably to save Casey from execution, the prosecutors are confounded by the apparent perjury.

The case abounds with strange characters.

* At one point, Casey’s $500,200 bail was paid by Leonard Padilla, a colorful California bounty hunter who wears a Stetson hat. To protect his investment, he insisted that an employee live with the Anthonys. That arrangement lasted only nine days for some reason. She has now weighed in that Casey is a narcissist who showed no signs of sorrow while Caylee was still unaccounted for and talked about her in the past tense.

* Baez may be trying to pin the relocation of Caylee’s remains, in the swampy woods less than a mile from where she lived, on Roy Kronk. He’s a meter reader, apparently obsessed with the case, who had called police three times in August 2008 because he suspected the area in question was linked to the murder. Some of his ex-wives have told the press that he likes to restrain women with duct tape.

* Another potential scandal is that Baez may call on a woman who claims to have been George Anthony’s mistress in the summer of 2008: Krystal Holloway, aka. River Cruz. She reportedly sold her saga to a tabloid newspaper and has a record of prior arrests for theft.

* Cindy Anthony has cast aspersions on the father of Casey’s ex-fiancee, a man she says has “weird religious beliefs” that could involve human sacrifice. The Anthonys, who read Bibles while sitting in the back of the courtroom, must believe that their religion is not weird.

* Is there a jailhouse snitch? The police are investigating a tip that the idea for Casey’s accidental drowning plea might have been borrowed from a fellow inmate whose son died that way.

Nancy Grace on HLN
Equally mind-boggling are the fist fights that have broken out among ordinary Floridians waiting to score the 50 seats available to the general public each day. I’m content to tune into HLN or TruTV, the two cable stations that alternate in carrying what Time magazine has dubbed “The Social Media Trial of the Century,” even though the talking heads tend towards hyperbole. The worst offender is Nancy Grace, a perpetually irate television personality who refers to Casey again and again as “Tot Mom;” perhaps she’s even copyrighted it. The woman has a law degree and a license to commit self-righteousness.

In summation, it seems to me a whole lot of people down there are unduly interested in chloroform and duct tape. A fellow journalist who works for a newspaper in Daytona Beach always says the Sunshine State is a haven for the bizarre. Maybe so, but surely it’s a microcosm for the entire insane country. The trial is expected to wind down in the coming week. Back to real life instead of Reality TV. Meanwhile, in between work, errands, chores, socializing and sleep, I continue to feel a thrill whenever I hear words like “exculpatory” or “probative value.”  The verdict should be that this passion for justice serves as an important learning experience. I rest my case.

Addendum to Dear Jurisprudence (Posted July 6, 2011)

Here in the United States of Sensationalism, this week a Florida jury found Casey
Anthony not guilty on several murder counts related to the 2008 death of her two-year-old daughter, Caylee. Ratings doubled for the two CNN-affiliated cable networks that carried the monthlong trial, along with subjective commentaries by an array of supposed experts. After the surprising verdict, TV coverage surveyed people on the streets and in the bars of Orlando reacted with anger, tears and even veiled threats. A few suggested that the American system of justice worked as it should, even if the public disagrees with the outcome.

I suspect the nation will go into a paroxysm of outrage if Casey, now 25, gets the book and movie deal many predict will come her way lickety-split. When you read this, Judge Perry will have decided if she has to remain in jail for lying to investigators or go free thanks to time already served, which has been almost three years. One of those lies, told during a videotaped deposition, was the claim that a babysitter named Zenaida Fernandez Gonzalez had kidnapped Caylee. Should Casey’s ill-gotten fame lead to fortune, she may be forced to share the wealth because this woman, whom she referred to as Nanny Zanny, is suing her for defamation.

The police long ago determined that Nanny Zanny had nothing to do with the disappearance but, although a real person, was among the numerous make-believe characters Casey invented to cover her tracks as she wove a web of deceit about Caylee’s whereabouts. Gonzalez now says her life was turned upside down by the undeserved notoriety. Add her to a list that includes the entire Anthony family.

In the truth is stranger than fiction department that dominated this case, defense attorney Jose Baez probably takes the proverbial cake. After fathering a child at age 17, he graduated from law school but started defaulting on child support payments and declared bankruptcy. His subsequent business career, before being admitted to the bar, involved launching companies called Bon Bon Bikinis and Perhaps it’s little wonder that Casey, who competed in hot-body contests while supposedly searching for Caylee, appeals to Baez’s sense of how women ought to comport themselves.

Since 2005, Baez worked as an obscure lawyer possibly favored by convicts. One of Casey’s fellow inmates recommended him to her and the rest is history. Or is it infamy?

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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