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

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Details like that one have enraged the court of social-media opinion. The day after Williams testified, Facebook user Jennifer Heavey posted a typical message on a Caylee Anthony page called Sweet Angel: "think im gonna puke in my mouth over them trying to get an aquittal shes GAULITY GAULITY GAULITY [sic]!!! Justice for Caylee."

Hundreds of more sober posts on various pages weigh whether Cindy Anthony is a victim of her daughter's duplicity or a grandmother who didn't do enough. Cindy has wept on the stand several times at the trial; each time, posts on various Anthony feeds and pages spike to hundreds per minute. After testifying on June 14, Cindy mouthed the words "I love you" to her daughter. When Casey looked away without responding, the digital fury was palpable. If it's true that Facebook and Twitter provide forums for a rich abundance of perspectives, the Casey Anthony trial shows they can also be arenas for mass, lip-licking bloodlust.

From a legal perspective, the case against Anthony is astonishingly weak. Before it rested its case June 15, the state could present only a ragbag of circumstantial bits of evidence against her. Her fingerprints weren't found on the body or on the duct tape over Caylee's mouth and nose. No eyewitnesses ever saw Casey hurt Caylee, and the defense is sure to call witnesses who will testify that mother and daughter were close.

The prosecution is relying mostly on evidence found in an Anthony family Pontiac Sunfire that Casey used to drive. Casey abandoned the car about two weeks before Caylee was reported missing. When George Anthony got the car back, he said the trunk carried an overpowering stench of decomposing flesh. He testified that he had smelled dead bodies when he was a cop and that the smell is something "you never forget." A controversial new smell test developed by crime researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory showed that the odor almost certainly came from a body, not from a bag of garbage (as Anthony's attorney has said). The prosecution also has a single strand of hair from the trunk, but it cannot say for certain whether that hair belonged to Caylee or to another Anthony family member. Tests suggesting that the hair came from a decomposing body are not conclusive.

But even if the body was in the car, isn't that consistent with Casey's story, that she and her father panicked and disposed of the body after Caylee drowned in the pool?

And about that tattoo: what if Bella Vita is a description not of the good life Casey believed she would have after her troublesome daughter was dead but of the "beautiful life" that had just been taken from her?

Wouldn't Casey abandon her car after she had to use it to hide her daughter's corpse? Wouldn't she bury her daughter with the girl's Winnie the Pooh blanket, all the better to comfort the little body? Wouldn't she have to keep up appearances after the accident by going out with friends to bars? Wouldn't she text her boyfriend, "I'm the dumbest person and the worst mother. I honestly hate myself"?

Well, maybe. You have to squint really hard to bring the defense case into focus. It could ultimately crumble because of the overreaching, virtually unprovable accusation that George molested Casey. In court, the prosecution played hours of tapes from 2008 visits by George and Cindy to see Casey in jail. During one visit, Casey told her father, "You've been a great dad and the best grandfather." The defense could argue that she said those words because she was frightened of him and knew that police were taping the visit. But her many deceptions won't incline jurors to give her the benefit of the doubt.

For the public, though, the endless variations of the truth coming from Courtroom 23 are fodder for constant posts and reposts, bitter condemnations and many!! exclamation!! points!!!! The Anthony family tale has so many crosscurrents that operate along such electrified moral axes that it's hard to turn away. If you looked at O.J. Simpson in 1995 and saw a cold-blooded killer trying to get away with it, you could only scream at the television. But if you see murder in Casey Anthony's big brown eyes during a live feed of her trial, you can tell all the world how delectable you will find her execution.

In a new eBook, TIME puts infamous cases like the Casey Anthony trial under a magnifying glass. Download the eBook now.

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