How the Casey Anthony Murder Case Became the Social-Media Trial of the Century

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Joe Burbank / AP

Defendant Casey Anthony appears in court on the second day of jury selection in her trial

Like many other popular attractions in Orlando, the Casey Anthony trial requires tickets. Hundreds of people show up each day to watch the murder case unfold. But only those who arrive well before 8 a.m. and wait in June swelter can get a pass allowing them into the soaring, chilly top-floor courtroom where Anthony is trying to avoid the death penalty.

Anthony is accused of murdering her 2-year-old, Caylee, in 2008. In December of that year, investigators found parts of the girl's duct-taped corpse near Anthony's parents' home. Bugs and vegetation had colonized the remains, which had been dumped roughly six months earlier. The sheer horror at the act — and the idea that a mother committed it — catapulted the case from local live-at-5 sideshow to tabloid sensation ("Monster mom partying four days after tot died," one recent report said) to national preoccupation. The case is being followed by millions on live-stream video feeds and constant cable-news reports. In the past few days, the Washington Post and the Miami Herald have become the latest major outlets to begin offering live streams of the case. CNN and NBC air so much coverage of the trial that the networks each decided to erect a two-story, air-conditioned structure in a lot across from the courthouse. The broadcast village around the court often grows to hundreds of media vehicles.

And yet they are relative latecomers to what is the first major murder trial of the social-media age. The first public mention of the case appeared on MySpace on July 3, 2008, when Cindy Anthony, Casey's mother, posted a distraught message saying her daughter had stolen "lots of money" and wasn't allowing her to see her granddaughter. (A few days later, Cindy called 911 to report a "possible missing child.")

Today, the latest and most reliable news of the trial comes from a Twitter account, NinthCircuitFL. That's the feed managed by the 9th Judicial Circuit Court, which has some 400 reporter-blogger followers. (As the first court in the U.S. to use DNA evidence, in a 1987 rape case, it's accustomed to being on the cutting edge.) The various Facebook pages honoring Caylee have amassed tens of thousands of friends, and Twitter accounts like CaseyJunky and OSCaseyAnthony (managed by the Orlando Sentinel) are adding followers at a rate of hundreds per day.

And yet virtually no one doubts that Anthony was involved in her child's death. In fact, her lawyer admits that Anthony knew how her daughter's body would be disposed of. Few legal experts watching the proceedings expect her to get off. So why has this case become the O.J. Simpson trial of the new decade?

Casey Anthony is a tenacious liar. Her defense team isn't disputing most of her deceptions, which began not long after Caylee went missing three years ago. When sheriff's deputies first questioned Anthony, in July 2008, she said that because she worked at Universal Studios (a lie) she employed a nanny to care for Caylee (another lie). That nanny, she said — a woman named Zenaida Fernandez-Gonzalez — had stolen her child. This was a fantastic lie, as no such person existed.

The case might have run its tabloid course relatively under the radar if the fraudulent story line hadn't changed. But last month, when the murder trial against Anthony began, she and her attorney Jose Baez radically altered the script. They said Anthony had lied for so long in order to cover up a family tragedy: Caylee had accidentally drowned in her grandparents' pool. Baez said Casey didn't reveal the truth because she was scared of her father George Anthony — who, Baez alleged, had begun molesting Casey when she was 8.

George Anthony, 59, a tanned, white-haired former cop who shows up with his wife most days at the trial, has denied the accusation. "When I heard that today," he said in court, "it hurt really bad." The prosecution has chipped away at the drowning theory by showing that Casey didn't seem upset in the days following the supposed accident. A local tattoo artist, Bobby Williams, testified that on July 2, 2008, about two weeks after Caylee was last seen alive, Anthony entered the shop where he works and requested new ink. She was specific about what she wanted: the phrase "Bella Vita" (Italian for "beautiful life"). As he tattooed Casey, Williams said, she happily chatted on the phone.

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