Sunday, July 17, 2011

This Year's Murder of The Century

Early this morning, Casey Anthony walked out of the Orange County Jail. Hopefully into obscurity. Center of this spectacle she may have been, but a center that never really held; never truly aggrieved or scornful or much of anything beyond peeved. Even when she was acquitted of all but the most serious charges and found out that her hard time would consist of one more week in jail. There will, I suppose, be a Big Interview or two, but I am under no to watch, and I won't.

This case became a spectacle early on. I'm not quite sure when the case first appeared on local newscasts, but I first took serious notice around the time that a crowd of complete strangers descended on the Anthony's house in Orlando demanding that they be told what happened to Casey's daughter, Caylee. These sort of people have become ubiquitous in notorious criminal cases of late; they make a bit of sense in say, the case of Michael Jackson, who was known for something besides being an alleged child-fiddler. In the case of the people in front of the Anthony house, or the UK mob who attacked the police van the boys who killed two-year old James Bulger -- yes, it's horrifying that a child was killed and people have every right to be outraged, but don't these people have jobs?

The outraged mob appeared somewhere between the California skip-tracer bonding Ms. Anthony out of jail and the announcement by John Morgan, central Florida's premier ambulance-chaser, that he was filing a libel suit against her on behalf of one Zenaida Gonzalez, whose name had been tossed about during the days when Ms. Anthony was still claiming that her daughter had been kidnapped by a babysitter. (Morgan is as close to ubiquitous as a human being can get in this part of the world--even if you hit the mute button during every one of the six million TV commercials he runs a week, there are still the fridge magnets, the ads on the back of the Yellow Pages, and his moon face on the back rests of better bus-stop benches everywhere.) Morgan all but promised to solve the case in his chambers. He didn't. He was the first person to make such promises, but hardly the last. Still, the publicity was free.

Most of it supplied by the local TV stations, for whom The Case Against Casey was a lot more fun than drunken kids falling off of balconies during Spring Break, cyclists smashing themselves to bits during Biketoberfest, or local political officials taking bribes. Because the case was in Orlando, it got more coverage in the Sentinel than the News-Journal in Daytona Beach, but both papers treated the story as essentially "B" section crime news. For the TV folks, it was like a 10-pound rump roast being dangled in front of an underfed Rotweiler . . .

At this point, I should probably insert a rant about the coarsening of society and the declining values of the press, but the fact is, it could have been a lot worse. Paul Collins' engaging new book The Murder of The Century, about the 1897 murder of a New York Turkish-bath masseur named Willie Guldensuppe by his mistress Augusta Nack and her other lover Martin Thorn, is full of stories about reporters for the competing New York tabloids, Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Hearst's New York Journal trampling over crime scenes, stealing letters and mementos and such from the families of victims and suspects alike, and generally getting in the way of an ongoing investigation (the fact that they did a better job of investigating the crime than some of the cops assigned to the case were doesn't really excuse things). And as anyone who has hovered in the general vicinity of a newspaper or the nightly news recently has heard, reporters working for various tabloids owned by Rupert Murdoch hacked into the cell phones not only of movie stars and soccer players, but also one owned by a 13-year old girl named Milly Dowler, even eliminating messages from the phone's in-box, as well as those of her parents. Orlando-area TV stations were over the top in the coverage of the Anthony case, but even they seemed to realize that there are lines not to be crossed. Mind you, they got their foot as close to it as possible more than once.

As far as the trial itself, the prosecution over-charged the defendant considering how circumstantial the evidence was and introduced air-sample analysis evidence based on science that is probably far too new and unproven to be relied on. The defense spent most of its time trying to talk about how the defendant's father and brother molested her. And trying to say that Roy Kronk, the meter reader who found the body had moved it, or hidden it, or used it as a centerpiece on his dining-room table. Without saying it in so many words, of course. They proved that he probably embroidered his story a lot and was interested in the reward money for finding the little girl. Not nice, but not interfering with evidence either.

Two things about the trial impressed me. One was the long line of crime-scene technicians who took the stand during the trial; quiet, precise, and professional. Their lack of self-dramatization and concentration on what they found and when and where they found it gave the known facts of the case real weight it had never had before. At this point, the death of Caylee Anthony stopped being a media sensation and became a serious criminal case.

The other was the judge, Belvin Perry. In his overwrought but sometimes perceptive article about the trial, film critic David Thomson noted that Perry "seemed to see the horrid likelihood that he might become a TV personality and eroded that threat by being steadfast, professional, and bored." He was also wryly witty, did his best to keep the lawyers from playing stupid games (to the extent that this can be done), and fussed over the jury, transplanted from the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area because it was impossible to get an impartial jury where the crime happened, like a mother hen. Like the crime-scene techs, he seemed to grasp the gravity of the situation and acted accordingly.

The dueling coroners were painful. Dr. Garavaglia, the Medical Examiner for Orlando, bounced into court with her big basic-cable-star smile and acted rather aggrieved when it was pointed out to her by the defense lawyers that she had declared the manner of death a homicide without being able to pinpoint a cause of death. Yes, there was duct tape on the skull, but no one was really able to say if the tape had been placed on the face before or after death, and although she went through the string of "red flags" that pointed to homicide, she didn't seem willing to concede that red flags and concrete evidence are not one and the same thing. Werner Spitz, the former Medical Examiner for Detroit and current hired-gun forensics expert, got up on the stand for the defense and called Gravaglia's work shoddy and when questioned about several pieces of inconvenient evidence found at the crime scene, implied that they had been planted. He was right that Garavaglia should have opened the skull when she examined the skeletal remains, but he made the point in such a crass and self-congratulatory manner that it lost a lot of its impact . . .

The lawyers? Linda Drane Burdick, one of the prosecutors, was the least annoying, until she gave the closing prosecution rebuttal and transformed herself from a quiet, thorough professional into an Avenging Angel, horrifying the jury with images of Casey Anthony wrapping duct tape around her daughter's face to suffocate her, even though there was no evidence to support it. It would have been much more effective simply to run through the most persuasive of the circumstantial evidence, particularly the blizzard of lies that the defendant told in the days after her daughter seemed to fall off the face of the earth and leave it at that. Facts speak simply and clearly.

Still, compared with her colleague, Jeff Ashton, she was a model of decorum. The spectacle of this man smirking, giggling down his cuffs, rolling his eyes, indeed doing everything but sticking his thumbs in his hears and waggling his fingers while sticking out his tongue during the defense's closing arguments made me despair for the state of Florida at times. And the human race the rest of it.

The defense lawyers? Jose Baez graduated from college and law school and passed the Bar Exam. It's a hell of a lot more than I can say for myself, frankly. And, pro bono, he gave his indigent client a rich man's defense. He also had little experience in criminal law, seemed scattered and disorganized more than once, and tried to conduct the defense like an episode of a TV courtroom drama, forever pulling a shocking plot twist out of his briefcase just before the commercial break. Judge Perry was often at his most amusing, not to mention withering, when confronting Baez in yet another attempt to play fast and loose with both the letter and the spirit of the laws that regulate trials. Baez's closing statement was dramatic, impassioned, and frequently close to incoherent. But he had one thing, one big thing, on his side--the other guys simply had not proven their case Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Which means that even though the last-minute testimony of his client's mother that she made the incriminating Internet searches that were a big part of the prosecution case was probably perjured, even though he had to trick the court into dragging his client in front of a shrink to scare her out of getting on the stand and probably sealing her fate, even though he never seemed to have his papers in order, he managed an acquittal. He may not be so lucky next time.

I suppose I should say something about Nancy Grace . . . Yuck. Done.

A headline on this week's National Enquirer announces that Ms. Anthony will be getting a "$50,000 makeover" and getting married. Seems unlikely. In the immediate wake of the acquittal, there was a lot of talk about book and movie deals for Ms. Anthony. Seems unlikely. The only person involved in a high-profile murder case who became anything approaching famous was Evelyn Nesbit, and she was the ex-wife of an acquitted murderer. And that fame didn't last long. In her later years, after struggling with depression and addiction, she became a ceramics teacher in California. As for her husband Harry Thaw, who did commit murder and got away with it, he wasted away the rest of his life, doing stretches in various mental institutions, getting arrested for assaulting (and probably raping) a teenaged boy, and finally drinking himself to death in Florida. And there was Dan White, who did five years for manslaughter after a San Francisco jury accepted his diminished capacity defense in the murder of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Less than two years after his release, he killed himself.

Anthony would be smart to take the Nesbit route (minus the drinking and the morphine addiction, mind you) and just disappear somewhere. As quickly as humanly possible.


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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Considering that I wrote it just over a year ago, I'm surprised that anyone would still be interested in reading it.