Thursday there will be a sentencing hearing in the trial of Casey Anthony, the 25-year-old Orlando woman accused of murdering her two-year-old daughter Caylee in 2008. A jury of seven women and five men found her guilty of four counts of lying to law enforcement officers. But she was found not guilty of the most serious charges against her: first-degree murder, manslaughter and aggravated child abuse.
The verdict was as controversial as the trial and the coverage itself – a saga that played out 24-7 on national television and around water coolers across the country.
One Chicago attorney had a front row seat to much of the action: DePaul University law professor and noted death penalty defense attorney Andrea Lyon was a key member of the Anthony defense team in its early stages. She joined WBEZ’s Steve Edwards on Eight Forty-Eight to share her reaction to the verdict.
Lyon came on to the defense team to block the prosecution’s capital punishment pursuit.
It was previously reported that Lyon eventually left the team because the cost of travelling from Chicago to Florida was adding up. Lyon admitted that while she’s defended dozens of death penalty defendants and received hate mail in the past, this was the first time she'd been physically attacked—twice in Orlando.
Edwards asked her to explain the context of the attacks: One took place while trying to interview a witness, the other, simply walking down the street in Orlando. The city, Lyon pointed out, has a long and difficult history of extreme racial tension. That led Edwards to ask what role race and class played in the Anthony case and the attention it received compared to other capital cases she argued.
“It plays an enormous role,” Lyon said. “We have an attractive, middle-class, white family; an attractive young woman with salacious photographs so we can love to hate her,” she continued. “And a beautiful little girl. But you know, as sad as it is, a lot of beautiful little girls go missing and unspeakable things are done to them all the time but if they’re African American or Hispanic, nobody cares.”
It would be foolish, Lyon said, to pretend that race and class had nothing to with this case.
Edwards described the outrage some expressed after the “bombshell” verdict as palpable. He asked Anthony’s former defense attorney for her reaction to the verdict and public response. “This is why we have trials instead of lynchings,” Lyon said. The judge sustained an objection from the prosecution once in eight weeks of trial. Lyons explained that this meant everything the state of Florida wanted to use to make the case against Anthony was allowed—every expert, every instruction, every restriction on closing arguments and a “death-qualified” jury.
But in the end, Lyon said, the jury digested the evidence and could not determine how Caylee died.
“Even their [the prosecution’s] medical examiner had to admit there was no cause of death, she could not rule out accident—and the jury said, ‘that’s not proof,’” Lyon explained.
And that, Lyon said, was how the jury was meant to rule—not on passions, not on whether they thought Anthony was a good or bad mother, or a bad person as she was often portrayed—but on whether or not Anthony or anyone killed Caylee.
Edwards concurred that a great deal of attention was paid to Anthony’s conduct during and in the aftermath her child’s disappearance—including detailed accounts and photos of partying and fresh tattoos—and wondered if her former attorney had a possible explanation for her client’s behavior.
She pointed to her friend and former partner, Jose Baez’s, opening statement whereby he explained that Anthony’s behavior was inexplicable to most people, but most people are not survivors of sexual abuse.
“If my son or daughter were missing for 31 seconds, let alone 31 days, I would go crazy—and most parents would,” Lyon began. “But most people are not child sexual abuse survivors. And most people have not had to develop a personality that acts like everything’s OK, when everything isn’t,” she reasoned.
Lyon attested that it was Anthony’s behavior that people hated but that it was not proof of a muder.
“That is what people have concentrated on—she didn’t behave the way that we think a woman should, the way that a mother should, the way that most folks would in a circumstance if their child was missing—and therefore, there must be a murderous thing behind that,” Lyon explained.
Edwards asked Lyon to explain her belief, about which she wrote and later argued in the Anthony case, in the existence of a gender bias when it comes to the application of the death penalty, specifically around questions of motherhood.
“It’s because she steps outside of gendered roles—a man who, you know, plays around and parties and whatever else, well, it’s not nice but you know, ‘boys will be boys.’ A woman who does that, it’s not acceptable,” Lyon said.
Further, she called the prosecution’s request for the death penalty in this case “simply outrageous.” To qualify a case for the death penalty, the prosecution must show that it’s a first-degree murder with what’s called an aggravating factor, or a plus factor, like the killing of a police officer in the line of duty. But capital punishment is supposed to be reserved, Lyon said, for people with awful criminal histories or where torture or other egregious facts exist. And in this case, she argued, the death penalty was used for a tactical advantage.
During the jury selection process in death penalty cases, a potential juror that is opposed to the death penalty is excluded for cause—it’s the only opinion one can hold that prevents a person from sitting on a jury. Therefore, Lyon said, a jury pool in a capital case is stacked with members that are pro-death-penalty and have been tainted, to a degree, by the process of considering the case for the death penalty before it has been argued.
The media coverage and public fascination, Edwards pointed out, was compared to that of the O.J. Simpson trial. He asked Lyon why a similar frenzy formed around the Anthony case.
“Well, there was a drumbeat started by someone who pretends to be a journalist and pretends she was actually a good lawyer, by the name of Nancy Grace,” Lyon began. “She actually encouraged people to go to the Anthony home and you know, start trouble.”
Lyon recalled counting 187 shows before the trial devoted to the case, helping create the fascination.
“It’s very easy to tap into hatred; it’s very easy to tap into those kind of mob, ugly kinds of reactions. It’s much more difficult to ask people to stop and think,” Lyon explained.
She went on to say that the media no doubt played a role in the prosecutions’ reach in charging Anthony.
Edwards asked what such heightened, intense media coverage does to a defense team’s navigation of a case.
It certainly interfered with the defense’s ability to interview witnesses—because once a person was identified as a witness, they were excoriated in the press.
Given the profile and attention of the case, Edwards wondered, what happens to defendants, like Casey Anthony, that are found not guilty or exonerated. Lyon called it a difficult road—defendants have spent a lot of time in prison, they’ve been treated badly and it has a damaging effect on their psyche. In Anthony’s case, a woman Lyon described as particularly “fragile,”so she is quite concerned.
Edwards asked her to clarify what she meant by fragile and she again pointed to the abuse Anthony survived. But for as much as the claim was discussed at trial, Edwards pointed out that there was not specific evidence to substantiate a history of abuse.
Lyon said, without revealing confidence, that there were witnesses that didn’t say things she assumed the defense was expecting to hear and that there were other witnesses that could have confirmed changes in behavior and things that are indicia to the type of mental health problem the defendant endured. She believed witnesses were frightened to come forward.
“So I am concerned—I don’t know where in this country she can live; safely. There are people who want her dead and I fear for her safety,” Lyon concluded.