The Casey Anthony Verdict: The Jury Did the Right Thing

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Casey Anthony, center, flanked by her attorneys Jose Baez, left, and Dorothy Clay Sims, reacts upon hearing the jury's not-guilty verdict at the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando, Fla., on July 5, 2011

Casey Anthony is guilty of many things. She is an enthusiastic liar. She was an indifferent mother. She mooched off her overindulgent parents for years. Even after her daughter went missing, Anthony partied and got a tattoo. But the state of Florida did not make a good case that Anthony murdered her daughter. In acquitting Anthony, the jury made the right call.

In his closing argument on July 3, one of the prosecutors, Jeff Ashton, said that a combination of chloroform and duct tape killed Caylee Anthony. But he couldn't say which came first, the chloroform or the duct tape; his team was never even able to prove that chloroform had been used. Caylee's corpse was found with duct tape on her face, but the tape had no fingerprints or DNA. And so Ashton, in his closing, had to resort to a passive accusation: "That tape," he said, "was placed there for one singular purpose. This murder was premeditated." But who, exactly, placed the tape? And who premeditated it?

Anthony got off because the prosecution couldn't answer such questions. Because the prosecutors had so little physical evidence, they built their case on Anthony's (nearly imperceptible) moral character. The prosecutors seemed to think that if jurors saw what a fantastic liar Anthony was, they would understand that she could also be a murderer.

And yet, why would Anthony kill her daughter? When Caylee died in 2008, her mother was young and blithe, 22 going on 16. Anthony lived with her parents, dated lots of guys and wasn't thrilled about having to care every day for a 2-year-old. And so she chloroformed the girl? Or duct-taped her face? And then, after Caylee died, Anthony stuffed the body in her trunk, let it rot and dumped it in the woods? And the mother did all this just so she could party? Jurors were stuck in the position of convicting Anthony only if they diagnosed her as a psychopath first.

Anthony's attorney, Jose Baez, presented another theory. His was also implausible. He said Caylee had accidentally drowned in her grandparents' pool — and that Anthony didn't tell authorities because she feared her father and Caylee's grandfather, George Anthony, 59. Baez said George had molested his daughter when she was a girl. He said the family panicked after Caylee's body was found in the pool and decided to stage her death as a murder. Baez said that Anthony's various lies were meant as a cover-up.

Virtually no evidence exists to support this account — one that George denied in court. But Baez understood that he didn't have to provide evidence for his theory. As in any other case, the prosecution had the burden of proof: it had to show that Anthony killed Caylee. Baez didn't have to show how she might have died otherwise. But his ornate pool-drowning-molestation-cover-up theory could help provide doubt for a jury bewildered by all the evidence.

Ashton and his colleagues were never able to show how Caylee died. Much of the prosecution's evidence came from examining remnants of Caylee's little corpse. Her bones had been gnawed by animals, and the remaining bits of unwanted flesh and clothing were scattered by storms and vermin.

So how did Caylee die? Baez has said because authorities settled too quickly on the theory that Caylee was murdered, they may have missed evidence of how she might have died otherwise. A family quarrel that turns into a beating? Maybe Anthony left Caylee in the car too long and then panicked? The Casey Anthony trial offered few answers. It provided neither justice nor clarity.

Murder cases occupy a unique place in the American judicial arena: they require inflexible scientific evidence even as they elicit primal emotions. In the unsolved death of Caylee, the dearth of evidence means that all that unresolved emotions will continue to haunt an audience that had grown obsessed with the trial of her mother since jury selection began on May 9, almost two months ago.

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