What's Behind America's Casey Anthony Obsession?

Guest

Linda Holmes, popular culture critic, NPR

Casey Anthony, the 25-year-old charged with killing her daughter in 2008, was found not guilty of murder Tuesday. The trial was a national sensation on cable news and became a tourist attraction in Orlando, where people camped outside the courtroom for seats.

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NEAL CONAN, host: Yesterday, after years of investigation and weeks of testimony, a jury in Orlando, Florida took less than 11 hours to find Casey Anthony not guilty of first degree murder and other major charges. In a trial that became a cable TV sensation, Anthony was accused of killing her two-year-old daughter, Caylee. The jury did find Anthony guilty on four counts of lying to sheriff's deputies. She will receive her sentence tomorrow. She could be free by this weekend.

We want to know what should we learn from the Casey Anthony case. What's your takeaway? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And we begin with Linda Holmes, writer and editor for NPR's Monkey See blog, who joins us here in Studio 3-A. Nice to have you back on the program.

LINDA HOLMES: Thank you so much.

CONAN: And why was this trial such a media event? With all the cases like this, why this one?

HOLMES: Right. I mean, in general, sensational murder cases being magnets for public attention is not new. You can go back to, obviously, O.J. Simpson, but obviously much farther back, Lindbergh baby and all that business. In terms of this particular one, there certainly is a public perception, I think, that cases that involves victims who are, you know, attractive, white women and girls, that's certainly been something that was talked about when the case of JonBenet Ramsey became very heavily followed, when the disappearance of Natalee Holloway, who disappeared a few years ago, when that one was first publicized.

I think the other thing is the growth, as you mentioned, in cable news, it's a terrible and somewhat crass comparison, but the same way that, you know, the growth of cable news has allowed people who want to follow exclusively sports or some other interests, people who have a great interest in following cases like this, particularly since the advent of Court TV and the many talk shows that are now hosted by people who started on Court TV, including Nancy Grace. That makes it much easier, I think, for one of these cases, once it's chosen, for interest to sort of gather around that case and for it to gain momentum.

CONAN: We're also going to read excerpts from some op-eds and editorials on the case. And this was from Andrew Cohen in The Atlantic. The broadcasts were extraordinarily popular, he wrote, because they were a potent blend of soap opera, reality TV and "Law and Order." Most of all, they offered hours upon hours of guiltless judgment. That and the sudden acquittal was the real common denominator between this case and the O.J. Simpson case nearly a generation ago.

Even better, when the courtroom lights dimmed for the evening, curious court watchers could come back to their televisions to have their own preconceived notions about the evidence reaffirmed regularly by their favorite celebrity analysts or via Twitter. From the talking heads, so much sound and fury, in the end, signifying nothing.

HOLMES: I think that's very accurate. And I think one of the things that make trials in particular easy to move into the public consciousness is that just as they do provide a comprehensible narrative for an episode of "Law and Order," it's a public story with two sides, with presumably a beginning and an end, and you have a structure. So it's not a story - it's not a news story that just kind of goes along and nobody knows exactly where it's going. Theoretically, you have stages in a trial, and then you get to the end, and there's some kind of conclusion, which you either find satisfying or you don't.

CONAN: This is from Anthony's attorney, Cheney Mason. Well, I hope this is a lesson to those of you having indulged in media assassination for three years. Bias, prejudice and incompetent talking heads, he said. I'm disgusted by some of the lawyers who have done this. And I can tell you that my colleagues from coast to coast and border to border have condemned this whole business of lawyers getting on TV and talking about cases they don't know a damn thing about.

HOLMES: Yeah. That's - it is an interesting development. And, again, I think - I tend to trace it back to the beginning of Court TV. Having attorneys give sort of advanced legal opinions about cases they're not involved in is something that I think they used to be a little more hesitant about doing. So it does seem a little strange at times.

CONAN: We should point out, I think you're an attorney, and you're being careful not to give opinions about cases you don't know much about.

HOLMES: I am a lapsed attorney. I did criminal...

CONAN: Recovering.

HOLMES: Right. I did criminal cases only when I was in job I had when I was still in law school. But, yeah, it - I would never - it would never occur to me to opine about a jury verdict whether it's correct or not, you know, in public, obviously, when I wasn't there. I know both more and less than the jury. I didn't see the entire trial, and I know a bunch of stuff from media coverage that they don't know and didn't have access to. So it's very difficult to judge those things.

CONAN: We're talking with Linda Holmes. What's your - what lesson do you think we should take away from the Casey Anthony trial? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Allen(ph), calling from Williamsburg in Virginia.

ALLEN (Caller): Hello. How are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

ALLEN: What we have learned is that our judicial system is flawed and that they are people that get away with serious crimes that they have committed. The reason for that juries - there are various problems with juries. Some people don't feel that they could convict, that they don't have hard forensic evidence, regardless of the fact that they have multitudes of circumstantial evidence. Some people convict or refuse to convict - they convict based on the appearance of the person and what race they are. And there's a whole lot of things that go into it, but the bottom line is there are a number of people walk having committed serious crimes in our country.

CONAN: And it sounds, Allen, did you watch this trial as it unfolded?

ALLEN: I watched some of it, yeah. I was pretty much sickened by it, but, yeah, I did watch some of it.

CONAN: And came away pretty convinced that she was guilty.

ALLEN: Oh, I don't think there's any question that she's guilty.

CONAN: All right. Thanks, Allen, very much. Appreciate the phone call. This is from the Chicago Tribune editorial. Yes, it all smells like the trunk of Casey Anthony's car, especially for those who followed the trial on TV, in the newspapers or online. Cable news legal commentator Nancy Grace crusaded unabashedly for "Justice for Caylee," dubbing Casey Anthony "tot mom." Coverage of the trial riveted the nation, and courtroom spectator passes became one of the hottest tickets in Orlando.

Grace was only too happy to second-guess the verdicts. I absolutely cannot believe that Caylee's death has gone unavenged, she said. Tot mom's lies seem to have worked.

Juries agree - jurors agreed Casey Anthony was a liar, convicting her of all four counts of providing false information to police. But rejecting Anthony's version of events didn't leave the jurors in possession of the truth. Neither side produced conclusive evidence of what happened. We still don't know how Caylee died. We believe jurors wanted justice for Caylee too. Their job, though, was to weigh the evidence against her mother, and it came up short. Justice demands proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It doesn't demand a tidy ending to every story. The jury deserves credit for refusing to write one.

And that was a theme of several stories that, in fact, this was essentially an emotional appeal to the jury without that forensic evidence that would have nailed the case shut. And, well, emotion wasn't enough.

HOLMES: Yeah. You know, one of the things that the caller mentioned is that you can have that thing where you don't necessarily have to have forensic evidence in every case, the same kind of direct evidence in every case. But I think you could look at either the defense or the prosecution here as calling on emotion in various different ways. But the fact of the matter is, in the end, prosecutors in a criminal case have a very, very, very high hurdle that they have to jump over. And, you know, deciding that you don't - the jury in this case deciding that they didn't think that that hurdle was cleared is not necessarily the same thing as saying, we believe her. We believe that happened the way she said it happened.

CONAN: And saying not guilty is not the same as saying innocent.

HOLMES: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Very, very different idea.

CONAN: Let's go next to Chantal(ph), Chantal with us from Miami.

CHANTAL (Caller): Yes. Hi. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

CHANTAL: I really - it's a sad show, but I'm really enjoying it. But what I have said is that, in all of this drama, in all of the fanfare that's going on with this case, it appears to me that your guest speaker had mentioned everything except that there's a 2-year-old, which just vanished and nobody seems to know exactly what happened to that kid, and there's no justice for this child. And with that, I am done.

CONAN: All right. Thank you. And it is a terrible, sad case. A 2-year-old did vanish. A 2-year-old died. We don't know what happened to her. We may have suspicions, but we don't know.

HOLMES: Absolutely. Absolutely true. And it's absolutely true that in addition to other characteristics of both the defendant and the victim in the case, any case involving a kid this little - you know, that's obviously, a factor for people.

CONAN: Interesting, someone - many made comparisons to the O.J. Simpson case. Among those commented, Marcia Clark, the prosecutor in the Simpson trial said she was amused by the comparisons. There were many more differences than similarities, she said. She's not a famous athlete or a celebrity personality. She doesn't have years in the national spotlight with a lovable, affable persona. In fact, it was the opposite. She was viewed pretty quickly as guilty. And there were no racial over- or undertones.

And that, she said, was a difference. But interestingly, Imani Perry from The Grio asked, had Casey Anthony been black, might the verdict have been guilty? I read tweet after tweet, he wrote, following formulations - with the following formulations: Had Casey been a black woman, she would have been convicted. And while black women are being jailed for sending their children to good schools, white women who murder children are being let off.

The fact is, he wrote at a different point: We cannot say definitively what would have happened had the race of the actors been different. We better serve the justice of both children and our vision of racial equality to open our eyes to the everyday violence that goes along with being a poor child of color in the United States with minimal access to healthy food, adequate education, high quality child care and mental health services for overburdened families. They are all - these are all forms of violence against children in a country as wealthy as ours.

So we're gauging reaction to the Casey Anthony verdict yesterday. She has a court hearing tomorrow to face sentencing on the four convictions. These are misdemeanor convictions of lying to state investigators. Though there is some suggestion from state prosecutors she might yet face perjury trial - perjury charges for her testimony - perjury charges. She didn't testify in the case. In any case, we're also talking with Linda Holmes, the pop culture critic, writes for NPR's Monkey See blog. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Marvin. Marvin calling from Kansas City.

MARVIN (Caller): How are you doing?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

MARVIN: I can...

CONAN: Good ahead.

MARVIN: ...barely hear you.

CONAN: Oh, yeah. Go ahead.

MARVIN: Well, I've read the comments made all over the news. Number one, if she's guilty of anything, she's guilty of (technical difficulties).

CONAN: I'm sorry, Marvin. Your cell phone is betraying you. Can you try to move to a better spot?

MARVIN: I'm moving now to a better signal tower. But if she's guilty of anything, she's guilty of being stupid. Did you hear that?

CONAN: Yes, we heard that.

MARVIN: And her father being a 30-year man on the police force is home with her the night the baby (technical difficulties).

CONAN: And I'm afraid, Marvin, your cell tower did not perform as we might have hoped. But thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it. Here's some emails coming in. This from Sophia in Cincinnati: When other countries treat their citizens like criminals from mere suspicion, in our country beyond a reasonable doubt is what makes us just. I'm a psychotherapist, and I'm disappointed in other professionals who judged when we are trained to help others or at least not harm them if at all possible. Again, a comment on some of those who may have suggested that - or reconstructed what might have happened based on suppositions about what did happen.

This is from Tina: Jeff Ashton's breakthrough with having DNA evidence came back to bite him. If you don't have a perfect set of CSI evidence now, the jury thinks they have to have it and can't think for themselves. That's the so-called CSI effect, Linda Holmes.

HOLMES: Yeah. There's - I've read some conflicting evidence about whether or not that really - whether or not you can find good evidence of that in the way juries actually behave. But certainly, a lot of prosecutors, I think, feel that they face that exact problem.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Paul, Paul with us from Chico.

PAUL (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Paul. Go ahead, please.

PAUL: OK, good. I've got a couple of really major concerns with this, and I appreciate the comments about knowing the difference between not guilty and innocent. And, you know, we spend way too much time trying people in the media, and I haven't heard anything about the media. What really disturbs me the most about this - other than generally being turned off by our voyeurism when it comes to things like this - is the fact that the media in this is actually spending money to make this a big deal. And that's really, really, to me, a dangerous precedent, and it's something that I think we really need to seriously look at.

CONAN: Spending money to make it a big deal? What do you mean, just in the coverage?

PAUL: Well, you know, they explain it away as what they're getting. But there's all kinds of money that was spent by big media outlets to make this a big case and to get rights for interviews afterwards. And I'm sure there'll be a book and a movie that'll follow and maybe even a sequel. If you understand that sort of commercial process, putting that into the courtroom is very different than having an active press that reports on what's going on.

CONAN: Linda Holmes?

PAUL: But I'd like to hear some comments about that.

HOLMES: I think there's - I think that's a fair point. There was a controversy involving - I do not remember which network it was - but there was a controversy involving, I believe, one of the networks paying for rights to some photos and some other - it's structured as rights to show photos and other things from the family or from the - I think in this case, the defendant. And you do get into an issue whether, you know, you're sort of paying for access to the person or for the interview.

But it's definitely true that a lot of money has gone into covering this case. And it's also true that this case and cases like it have been massively important for individual media personalities, including, as we mentioned before, Nancy Grace, and entire networks like HLN, which is the one that she appears on.

CONAN: It used to be headline news.

HOLMES: It certainly did. It is not anymore.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Paul.

PAUL: Yeah. All right. Thank you.

CONAN: By the way, Dana Summers of the Orlando Sentinel did a number of editorial cartoons on the Casey Anthony trial. You can find the link to those on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Paul emails from Grand Rapids. I think two things we can learn is: one, not to jump to conclusions because of media hype or, two, juries can be wrong. What we need to learn is how to figure out which lesson we have learned and how to deal with it. And I guess those are two things.

HOLMES: Absolutely. And one of the things I personally take away from it is, whatever you think of this particular case and whatever you think of the outcome, it's very difficult to conclude that this is a good way to conduct a public, sort of, as you say, trial by media or things like that. Because no matter what the outcome is, whatever happens, there are going to be a certain number of people who are going to always assume that she was guilty no matter - you know, and that is - that can't really be undone by any verdict.

CONAN: Walter Pacheco from the Orlando Sentinel wrote: Social media sites, Twitter and Facebook, revolutionized the 36-day trial by casting a far-reaching net of news across the globe, bringing minute-to-minute updates directly into people's smartphones, tablets and work and home computers. On Tuesday afternoon, the coverage reached a zenith on Twitter when the keywords Casey Anthony were used 34,000 times, and not guilty appeared 20,000 times an hour after the announcement of the not-guilty verdict on the first-degree-murder charge.

And as impressive as those numbers are, Linda Holmes, that's nothing if you're talking about TV audiences.

HOLMES: Absolutely true. I'm a little hesitant to blame social media for this one, as we talked about before, given the long history, so.

CONAN: Linda Holmes, thanks very much.

HOLMES: Thank you.

CONAN: Linda Holmes is a pop culture critic for NPR's Monkey See blog. She joined us today in Studio 3A.

Tomorrow, the second A in AA. We'll talk with David Colman, who admitted in the pages of The New York Times that he quit drinking with the help of Alcoholics - well, they're supposed to be Anonymous. That issue tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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