A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Casey Anthony: Once in a Lifetime

Rob Lowe as Jeff Ashton

By Nicole Rowlands

O.J. Simpson. Dr. Jack Kevorkian. The Menendez brothers. Charles Manson. Defendants in famous murder trials, all. Of course, the list would not be complete without…

Casey Anthony.

Voted the most disliked person in America in 2011, the year of her trial, Casey Anthony stood accused of murder in the first degree in the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.

Everyone thought she was guilty. We were convinced she was guilty. The jury on the other hand, was not. And since our legal system dictates that a person is innocent until proven guilty in court, Casey Anthony was, and is, a free woman.

And now the story has made it to our TV screens. “Prosecuting Casey Anthony” premiered on Saturday, January 19 on the Lifetime Network. The movie is based on prosecutor Jeff Ashton’s book “Imperfect Justice: Prosecuting Casey Anthony,” and gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the prosecution team before and during Ms. Anthony’s murder trial.

From the beginning of the film we can see that Mr. Ashton (played by Rob Lowe) is a big deal. The lead attorney for the State of Florida, Linda Drane Burdick, (played by Elizabeth Mitchell) asked him to take the case as his last before retirement. Ms. Burdick may have been the lead chair officially, but it was pretty clear that it was Mr. Ashton who called the shots. As the movie made abundantly clear, this is a guy who “got the first conviction in the entire world based on DNA evidence.”  If someone might not know that already, Mr. Ashton probably makes it abundantly clear to them. (Just a hunch; it seems the guy has quite the healthy ego).

To Mr. Ashton, the Casey Anthony case was perfect: He would win and serve justice.  It was a case he couldn’t lose.

Until he did.

Ms. Anthony’s lawyer, Jose Baez, (played by Oscar Nuñez), claimed that Ms. Anthony was sexually abused by her father in the defense’s opening statement. There was never any proof of that, and Mr. Baez was tarred and feathered by the public for having made such allegations.

But about 30 minutes into the Lifetime movie, we are treated to real footage of George Anthony talking to his daughter in prison – footage the jury (and I) never saw.  Mr. Anthony says to his daughter, “I miss your hug, your squeeze, that papa Joe hug,” and says it in a way that drips with creepiness and sexual innuendo.  I’m not saying he ever sexually abused her.  And I’m not saying that even if he did, it should make any difference to the verdict if she murdered her daughter.

But it did offer some insight into how the prosecution may have made a mistake in painting Ms. Anthony as a sociopath, when there may be a more nuanced understanding of her personality, and her past.

The movie also offers insight into how our legal system works and reveals for those who do not know the slightest bit about a murder trial that without a confession or witnesses, the prosecution needs to show motive or intent in order to convict someone of murder in the first degree.

But there was no clear evidence of motive or intent in Casey Anthony’s case. No evidence of abuse or neglect. And no evidence to prove murder. All of the evidence was circumstantial.

It’s clear from the film that the prosecution overcharged. The prosecution was asking jurors to find Casey Anthony guilty of premeditated murder. And if the jury found her guilty of murder, the prosecution asked that Ms. Anthony receive capital punishment.

What if instead of charging Ms. Anthony with first-degree murder and asking for capital punishment the prosecution had gone with voluntary manslaughter or even second-degree murder? Neither requires proof of a defendant’s premeditation.

But Mr. Ashton pushed for the first-degree murder charge.

And then he swaggered, and preened, and smiled when he shouldn’t have, mocking Mr. Baez and Ms. Anthony. That couldn’t have helped Mr. Ashton win over the jury.  Especially because in real life, he hardly resembles Rob Lowe.

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