Why Casey Anthony Made Prime Time

By Andrew Cohen

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.

There are things we cannot know -- or at least things which I could not readily find. We don't know, for example, exactly how many parent-child murders occurred since Casey Anthony was charged with Caylee's death. We don't know exactly how many mothers or fathers have been prosecuted since in murder cases involving their children. And thus we don't know how many of those cases resulted in convictions or acquittals. But there are some things we do know. We know, for example, that the Anthony case, for all its ratings and its hype, was but a spit into the ocean when it comes to murder in America. Again, my apologies to Harper's for the riff on its famous Index:

  • Number of days since Caylee Anthony was reported missing in July 2008: 1085 
  • Number of murders recorded in Florida in 2008 alone: 1,168
  • Average number of murders per day in Florida in 2008: 3.19
  • Number of people sentenced to death in Florida in 2008: 16
  • Number of murders recorded in Florida in 2009 alone: 1,017
  • Average number of murders per day in Florida in 2009: 2.79
  • Number of people sentenced to death in Florida in 2009: 15
  • Number of murders recorded in Florida in first half of 2010: 487
  • Projected number of people sentenced to death in Florida in 2010: 13
  • Current number of people on death row in Florida: 394
  • Number of innocent people freed from Florida's death row since 1976: 23

Now let's take an even broader look:

  • Number of murders reported in U.S. in 2008, the year Caylee Anthony went missing 16,442.
  • Average number of murders each day in America that year: 44.92.
  • Number of murders reported in U.S. in 200915,241
  • Average number of murders each day in America that year: 41.76
  • Number of murders reported in U.S. in 2010 or 2011: Data not yet available.

By citing these statistics, I do not mean to diminish the significance of Caylee Anthony's death or to belittle (or endorse) the results of her mother's trial. It was a family tragedy all around -- and it will continue to be so no matter what happens now to Casey Anthony. Instead, 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 the nation has lost since the summer of 2008.

The stories of these thousands of "unfamous" victims have never been told on cable television. The narratives of destroyed lives and broken families have never been dissected in magazines, or in books, or in syndication. They never trended on Twitter, the stories of these black victims, or Hispanic victims, or victims whose trials were hidden from the camera's view. There were no primetime specials about them. Every hour of coverage of the Anthony case, every obsessive update about every little tick in her trial, every bit of lousy analysis detracted from the telling of these other stories about life and death, parent and child, conviction and acquittal, law and justice.

Millions of people woke up Wednesday morning as convinced as they had been the morning before that Casey Anthony is guilty of murder. For them, the poor jury's work means nothing and never will. But, for some of the rest of us, with the shadow of the Anthony case finally gone from daily view, the sun now shines on a day when other victims of crime may finally get their due. And that's about the best thing I can say about a case, and a trial, that will leave no lasting mark upon the law despite the fury it generated and the rubble it leaves in its wake.


Image Credit: NEW pool/Reuters

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/07/why-casey-anthony-made-prime-time/241425/