Why Casey Anthony Made Prime Time

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While Americans fixated on this trial, they ignored thousands of other murder cases 

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Now that the Casey Anthony murder trial is over, now that all the shouting has subsided and the verdicts have been bestowed, perhaps it's time for some context and perspective. While the television heralds were proclaiming the young mother's guilt, and while tens of millions of other eager beavers were leaping at the chance to be judgmental toward someone they'd never meet or ever know, the rest of America's criminal justice system just rolled on. And I mean, rolled on.

Although there is no centralized warehouse of online information about these sorts of cases, the raw statistics and anecdotal evidence suggest that hundreds of other parents around the country have been accused of murdering their children since June 2008, the month Caylee Anthony went missing. Some already have been convicted or have pleaded guilty. Others have been acquitted or are yet to face trial. Yet none have remotely achieved the fame (or notoriety) that Anthony achieved in a little less than three years, from the date she reported her daughter missing until Tuesday, the day she was acquitted of the murder and manslaughter charges against her in an Orlando, Florida courtroom.

By finally panning the camera out from the endless close-up of that courtroom in Orlando, I mean to try to call attention to the heartbreaking stories of some of the other murder victims

Lots of people have lots of theories about why the Anthony case attracted so much attention while so many other murder cases of the era have not. Whether it's right or its wrong, my theory is simple. Anthony is a white, middle-class woman -- she might even have been a soccer mom if things had turned out differently -- who had a darling, photogenic little girl. On many levels, her story connected with the vast swath of Americans who are themselves white, middle-class, and child-rearing.

Casey Anthony wasn't some freak, as so many venal commentators made her out to be. Until it all fell apart for her, you could argue instead that she was much like the millions of others who ended up following her trial. The fascination with her case -- and Caylee's tragic cause -- was most vibrant within a demographic that is particularly attuned to investing in this sort of a story. If Anthony hadn't been the defendant in the case, if another mother had been accused of murdering another child, is there any doubt in your mind that Anthony would have followed that trial?  

Or, put another way, the Casey Anthony story was made for Nancy Grace and Nancy Grace was made for the Casey Anthony story. One would not have developed (or devolved) the way it did without the other. Which brings me to another reason why so many people followed the case. Because they could! The Anthony trial was televised thanks to Florida's famous "sunshine" laws. The broadcasts were extraordinarily popular because they were a potent blend of soap opera, reality television and Law and Order. And, most of all, they offered hours upon hours of guiltless judgment! That (and the sudden acquittal) was the real common denominator between this case and the O.J. Simpson case nearly a generation ago.  

Even better, when the courtroom lights dimmed for the evening, curious court watchers could come back to their televisions to have their own preconceived notions about the evidence reaffirmed regularly by their favorite celebrity analysts or via Twitter. From the talking heads, so much sound and fury, in the end signifying nothing! In fact, you could argue that never before in the history of criminal trials in America have so many who pretended to know so much for so long been so wrong so quickly, the jury's verdict coming back after only 11 hours of deliberations following a seven-week trial (I did my part, too. On Tuesday, I said that the quick verdict likely meant success for prosecutors). Take away the live audio feed from the courtroom, and there's no way the Anthony trial would have turned into The Anthony Trial.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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