The hosts of the shows that I’m on often start their shows by telling the audience there’s new, “bombshell” information in unfolding stories that we’re discussing. Most of the time, I don’t think that the new information is really much of a “bombshell,” but on Tuesday, it was! In opening statements in the Casey Anthony trial, the prosecution began with a preview of forensic and circumstantial evidence which it said would prove its theory that Casey Anthony killed her daughter, Caylee (either intentionally or in the course of extreme abuse/neglect of the child), then transported the child’s body in the trunk of her car to a wooded area, then wove an ongoing web of lies about what had happened. Anthony’s lawyer, Jose Baez, then tried to explain away the month during which Caylee went unseen without being reported missing and the ensuing several months during which Casey told lie after lie to law enforcement about what had happened to the little girl.
The defense claims that Anthony knew that Caylee was deceased the whole time but didn’t cause the little girl’s death. Instead, Caylee supposedly drowned accidentally in her grandparents’ (George and Cindy Anthony’s) backyard pool, whereupon George supposedly counseled Casey not to report the death, disposed (or at least helped Casey dispose) of the body, helped Casey deceive Cindy about Caylee’s whereabouts for the month until Cindy confronted Casey about a foul smell in the trunk of Casey’s car and called police, and continued the ruse for months thereafter as law enforcement searched for the missing toddler, all the while participating tirelessly in the search.
Casey didn’t report Caylee’s death to law enforcement on the day of the drowning and wove a complex web of lies about what had happened to the little girl supposedly due to a combination of: 1) fear of punishment for failure to supervise the child, 2) fear of George, who supposedly had abused her sexually as a child and teenager, and 3) denial that Caylee was really dead — a sort of psychological retreat into the delusion that everything was fine, supposedly borne of her (Casey’s) sexual victimization at the hands of George years prior. Baez also suggested that Anthony’s brother, Lee, may have sexually abused Casey as well, and that the public utility worker who found Caylee’s body may have moved it to from wherever he found it to the location where law enforcement, acting on his tip, ultimately found it.
Baez also noted, importantly, that the prosecution still can’t say with certainty exactly how Caylee died, and he challenged the validity of anticipated prosecution evidence involving: 1) cadaver dogs’ signaling human decomposition in the area of the Anthony home, 2) trace evidence found in the trunk of Casey’s car, and 3) duct tape found still attached to Caylee’s skull. Overall, Baez probably did about as good a job as could’ve been expected of raising reasonable doubt, at least at this early stage in the trial, and that’s key because jurors tend to end up voting consistently with what they thought after opening statements. As I said on Tuesday night’s Joy Behar Show on HLN (pictured above), though, nothing about Baez’s opening statement is really inconsistent with the alternative interpretation that his client’s a psychopath who’s willing to throw anyone whom she perceives didn’t help her enough under the proverbial bus in order to escape punishment for her own wrongdoing, whether it be intentional murder or lethal neglect.
During that statement, George sat stoically in the courtroom. Some observers have attributed that solely to the judge’s instruction that the Anthony parents refrain from expressing any emotion if they wish to remain in the courtroom over the defense’s objection throughout the trial (they generally have a right to be there as the victim’s family, but Casey apparently didn’t want them there, so the judge has agreed to let them attend on the condition that they express no emotion). I’m a trained observer of people, though, and I think I saw something significant in his stoicism — resignation. He seemed resigned to the fact that his daughter’s beyond his help, resigned to the fact that he may have helped cultivate sociopathy in her by overindulging her, and resigned to the fact that he’d have to tell the truth even if it facilitated her conviction.
Joy said that, if she were George, she’d lie, even about having molested her daughter, in order to spare her daughter the death penalty. Maybe, but if so, I think Joy’s in the minority. When George took the witness stand in the afternoon, he denied each and every one of Baez’s allegations. He testified that he never sexually abused Casey, wasn’t present when Caylee died, and didn’t have anything to do with covering up Caylee’s death. He did take a slight pause when he answered “No” to the first question, whether he had abused Casey, but in this case, that looked less-probably like lying and more-probably like difficulty speaking truth that might help send his daughter to the death chamber. And to his response about not being present when Caylee died, he did add a measured expression of anger toward the defense, stating that he was “hurt” to hear it suggested that he knew all along what had happened to his granddaughter.
But there are some major circumstantial problems with Baez’s story as well. First and foremost, if George is a child molester, and if Casey was such a devoted mother, then why would she have frequently left Casey in George’s care while she faked going to a job and instead spent time partying with friends, boyfriends, etc.? And if George had abused her throughout her childhood, why is there video of Casey telling George during a jail visit shortly after her arrest that he had been a wonderful father and grandfather? Next, George is a former sheriff’s deputy. As such, he would’ve known that if his granddaughter really had died accidentally, then the thing to do would’ve been to call 911 immediately (i.e. that no one would’ve been likely to go to jail over that). Even if Casey had been drunk or high at the time of Caylee’s supposed accidental death, and even if they legitimately feared that Casey would be prosecuted for child neglect/endangerment, and even if they actually concluded that the thing to do was to hide the body, it seems like George would’ve known how to do it in a manner much less likely to ultimately be discovered (i.e. given the manner of disposal of the body, it seems highly unlikely to me that George was involved). Then there’s George’s tireless effort and expenditures in aid of the search for Caylee in the months during which she was missing. If George knew that Caylee was deceased as he traveled from state to state following up on tips, then he deserves a best-actor Academy Award, and he doesn’t seem that sophisticated to me. Some have noted that his reported suicide attempt in the weeks following the discovery of Caylee’s body indicates consciousness of complicity in her death. I think that’s a more convoluted and far-less-plausible interpretation than the much simpler, more-direct interpretation that he was a grandfather grieving both the death of his granddaughter and the increasingly-likely lifetime incarceration, perhaps even death, of his daughter.
Some observers, including Joy and Dr. Drew Pinsky, have opined that sexual abuse turns people into pathological liars. I think such statements are far too broad and quite possibly insulting to the majority of sexual abuse victims who are honest people. Yes, being mistreated early in life can contribute to people growing up sometimes mistrustful, sometimes defensively-self-centered (i.e. “do unto others before they do unto me”), sometimes hyper-sexual, etc. But as I said, I think most sexual abuse victims are honest people, who largely, resiliently, resist antisocial adaptations to their traumas.
As far as Baez’s criticism of the cadaver dogs’ use is concerned, there are in fact potential problems with the use of such dogs. Handlers can unconsciously cue the dogs to indicate interest in objects and people of which/whom the handlers are actually suspicious, making the dogs’ reactions unreliable. To avoid this, handlers can use practices like double-blind, multi-target searches, wherein the handlers and their dogs search multiple targets without any prior indication as to which is the actual suspected target. If such practices weren’t followed in this case, it may diminish the value of the dogs’ responses somewhat, but it seems to me that the relevance of those at this point is relatively low anyway.
As far as the trace evidence in Casey’s car is concerned, we’ll have to wait and hear the “battle of the experts.” Baez suggested that the techniques used to detect traces of chloroform and decomposition are unreliable and are promoted by a prosecution expert who markets the detection technology for profit. It would seem to me that if a waterlogged body that had been fished out of a swimming pool had been placed in that trunk, there’d be traces of chlorine in there as well, so the absence of such would seem to diminish the credibility of the defense story. (It’d be interesting, though, if a defense expert were to argue that this was in fact the case and somehow could account for what the prosecution’s expert opines was chloroform!)
As far as the duct tape is concerned, the point was that it apparently can’t be tied by DNA to either Casey or George. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Casey didn’t put it there, though (some unidentified DNA supposedly was found on the tape, but who knows, it could’ve been from the clerk who rung up the tape at the store where it was purchased). The prosecution suggested that the duct tape was actually the murder weapon — that Caylee was suffocated by having her nose and mouth covered with duct tape. Dr. Drew raised the possibility that someone might cover the nose and mouth of a drowning victim with duct tape to prevent water and bodily fluids from coming out as the body was transported. The prosecution, however, stated that its forensic evidence will show that the duct tape was placed over Caylee’s nose and mouth while she was still alive.
Some have asked, from a legal perspective, whether Baez can just make up a story to save his client’s life. The answer to that is, no. It’s unethical for an attorney to make statements of fact in court that he/she knows to be false or for which he/she has no basis whatsoever. Therefore, we can infer that Casey told this story to Baez. That would be enough for him to retell it in court, so long as he doesn’t know for a fact that it’s false. Keep in mind, his job is to represent, i.e. speak for, his client. Having said that, it’s one thing for an attorney to tell a story in an opening statement. It’s another thing for the attorney to back that story up with evidence. True, a criminal defendant doesn’t have to prove him/herself innocent. It’s the prosecution’s job to prove the defendant guilty. But, in this case, the defense’s story isn’t just that Casey Anthony didn’t kill her daughter. It’s that the little girl died accidentally but also that crimes were then committed by Casey and others to cover up the accidental death. In his opening statement, Baez essentially: 1) stated that an accident happened, then 2) admitted that his client committed some crimes (at the very least lying to law-enforcement if not also helping to dispose of the body), 3) accused others of crimes (George Anthony, of sexual abuse in the past and more recently, of helping to dispose of the body and lying to law enforcement; perhaps Lee Anthony, of sexual abuse in the past; and the utility worker, of moving the body and lying to law enforcement), and 4) stated that law enforcement’s anticipated evidence against his client will be unreliable. He can try to back (4) up with experts, but it’s going to be very hard for him to back up (1)-(3) without putting his client on the witness stand, which would be a huge risk given Casey Anthony’s propensity to be caught telling lies. Casey of course doesn’t have to testify (it’s her decision, but again, if Baez knew she insisted on testifying and lying, he couldn’t ethically continue to represent her), and if she doesn’t, the prosecution can’t argue to the jury that it proves anything about her guilt, but in practice, jurors tend to wonder why a defendant charged with murder, if the death was really an accident, wouldn’t speak up and explain that.
Along those same lines, but behind the scenes, keep in mind that the prosecution and the defense have known for months all of the evidence that we’ll be hearing in the coming weeks, and if there were truly evidence to back up Casey’s story, it seems like a plea deal, of the type that I predicted, probably could’ve been reached. The fact that no such deal was reached leads me to think the prosecution is confident that Casey Anthony was directly involved in Caylee’s death. Now, just for fun, let’s say that’s the case, but that the death essentially was still an accident (e.g. if Caylee did drown, but it was while Casey was passed out drunk, and then she panicked, disposed of the body, and started weaving her web of lies). You’d think that Casey would’ve either made a plea deal and maybe spent a few years in prison for child neglect and the cover-up. So, in a way, the very extravagance of this story that Baez told today — going so far beyond the necessary “accident” defense to implicate others in all kinds of crimes dating back to Casey’s childhood — might be the element that makes a juror actually believe it, thinking “If it was an accident, then why, instead of just saying so, would she dream up such fantastic set of extraneous events unless they really happened?”
But there is a potential reason other than truth, mitigation. As you know if you’re a regular viewer or reader, I don’t see how childhood sexual-abuse, even if it occurred, would explain or excuse, even in part, her murdering or endangering her child. Jurors, on the other hand, sometimes confuse empathy for a defendant’s history with the defendant’s culpability for a crime. In the 1990’s, for example, Susan Smith was convicted of the capital murder of her two young boys. Smith strapped the children into her car and sent the car plunging into a body of water, whereupon she concocted an “Anthony-esque” story about how she supposedly had been carjacked, and the carjacker had driven off with her children inside the car. In the sentencing phase of her trial, Smith presented “mitigating” evidence that she had been sexually abused earlier in life. Her jury spared her the death penalty.
Maybe Caylee Anthony died accidentally, but maybe Casey Anthony intentionally killed her. Some people believe that no mother could possibly kill her child intentionally without some kind of mental impairment or “complexity,” as Geraldo Rivera recently put it. Many jurors hold similar beliefs, which in part explains why so many fewer women than men are on Death Row, but I can tell you that it happens. People with no diagnosable mental impairments kill for all kinds of reasons. Bank robbers kill trying to get money; rapists kill trying to get sex; terrorists kill trying to make ideological points; mobsters kill trying to keep witnesses from testifying; and parents sometimes kill simply, selfishly so that they can be free of the burdens of parenting. Scott Peterson wasn’t suffering from any diagnosable mental impairment when he killed his wife and soon-to-be-born child so he could have a relationship with another woman. Similarly, Smith wasn’t suffering from any diagnosable mental impairment that prevented her from knowing what she was doing or from discerning right from wrong. Like Peterson, she apparently killed her two children so that she could pursue a relationship with a wealthy man who didn’t want kids. It may be more surprising when a woman does it because people expect women to have “motherly” instincts toward children, but women can be every bit as selfish as men.
Knowingly, willfully harming or endangering another human being simply for one’s own gratification (either pleasure enhancement or pain/punishment avoidance) happens, and while it certainly does indicate that something’s gravely wrong with the perpetrator, it doesn’t necessarily indicate that there’s any mental impairment. This is where psychology runs into philosophy — psychologists call it “psychopathy;” religious people call it “evil.” Bad things certainly may have happened in a psychopath’s life, but even if so, I generally don’t think they really reduce one’s culpability for knowingly, willfully, committing murder. Reasonable minds may disagree, though, which is why we let juries consider alleged “mitigating” evidence. This fantastic story that Jose Baez wove on Tuesday morning may well be a simultaneous attempt to raise reasonable doubt about Casey Anthony’s guilt and, failing that, stir up enough empathy in the jury to spare her the death penalty.
Whew, stay tuned!