This was the year of Casey. And like it or not, Orlando was the host city.
There may have been stories of greater societal significance in 2011 — the tsunami in Japan, the Arab Spring protests and the elimination of Osama bin Laden come to mind — but nothing captivated this town, this nation and much of the world in the same way the Casey Anthony trial did this summer.
Her story had a narrative we could relate to: a middle-class family, an attractive young mother, a precious child named Caylee Marie.
The rest, of course, was abhorrent: charges that a selfish, freedom-seeking Casey Anthony used chloroform and duct tape to kill her daughter, left her body in the woods and then partied for a month before reporting the 2-year-old missing.
Many could not fathom such a killing. Many would not believe the defense. But few tracking the Anthony trial in June and July could tune it out. People all over the country altered daily schedules to keep up with the case, watching it on TV, following real-time on Twitter, reviewing the analysis.
There is a reason the theater Shakespeare created 400 or more years ago resonates still. His plays told stories of deeply flawed characters, tragic losses and disastrous family dynamics.
The Anthony trial contained these universal themes, and that's probably why many of us were so absorbed. But even the world's greatest playwright could not have imagined a story quite like this.
If the Anthony case was an addiction, then our technology helped deliver the doses with instant feeds and posts online. Never before were social media, blogging and online reporting deployed to the extent it was during this trial.
Most reporters covering it used cellphones and iPads to describe what viewers might not see on TV: a juror's reaction to some piece of evidence presented or Cindy Anthony's response to testimony damaging to her daughter.
When the jury reached its verdict July 5, finding Anthony not guilty of murder, OrlandoSentinel.com set an all-time record of more than 22 million page views. More than 55,000 people signed up to receive text alerts from the Sentinel on significant moments during the trial.
This month, Google announced "Casey Anthony" was the No. 4 search term of 2011.
The case made a name for blogger/journalist Dave Knechel, who managed to parlay thoughtful posts on his marinadedave.com website into coverage of the trial for Orlando magazine.
But even Knechel admits the blogosphere he inhabits "created an unhealthy banter." Jealousy, personal attacks and deep emotional attachments to the case at times made the conversation ugly.
Robert Hernandez, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and online-journalism expert, said the trial demonstrated the fundamental changes that social media and bloggers bring to the way we receive our information in high-profile cases and major news events.
"For better or worse, people want real-time information," he explained. "This is not a passing phase. Social media really amplified that water-cooler culture that used to occur only around the water cooler. There's a flood of voices, and it's not going away."
Too much information?
After little Caylee was reported missing in July 2008, the prosecution's release of thousands of pages of discovery became immediate stories for the local and national media.
Who can forget the images of Casey partying with friends in the days after Caylee disappeared? We saw letters she wrote from jail. We watched cadaver dogs search the Anthony home.
The access to information — from the prosecution and in the early days, from George and Cindy Anthony frantically searching for their granddaughter — is part of what fueled the interest.
"Essentially our entire case was before the public long before the trial ever started," said retired prosecutor and now best-selling author Jeff Ashton. "Sometimes pretrial publicity can hurt the state, too."
But as the trial approached and progressed, the availability of certain records was restricted. When the trial was over, Chief Judge Belvin Perry delayed the release of jurors' names for three months, until a "cooling-off" period had expired.
Perry has even suggested that Florida's public-record laws should be evaluated to see if "the release of certain information is causing more harm or whether the public's and media's right to know outweighs that harm."
It's not over
Although the trial ended in early July, the public and the media were not ready to be cut off. The Anthony story has not died.
She is thought to be hiding someplace in Florida, and her whereabouts remain the subject of endless speculation. But what really keeps the story alive are the civil lawsuits filed against Casey Anthony.
Each one directly involves the lies Anthony told and the impact those lies had on Zenaida Gonzalez, Texas EquuSearch and Roy Kronk.
Gonzalez says she was defamed because Casey Anthony told authorities a woman with a similar name abducted her daughter; EquuSearch said it spent more than $100,000 searching for a child never abducted or missing; and Kronk argues his name was severely damaged when Anthony's attorneys cast him as a possible killer after he found Caylee's remains.
The legitimacy of these claims may be debated forever, but their practical effect may be to force Anthony to tell her story under oath. For now, she is using her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to stave off fully answering questions.
If she tells the story just as her criminal-defense attorney Jose Baez told it to the jurors during the murder trial — that Caylee drowned in the family swimming pool and that George Anthony knew about it — then the claims against Anthony may very well be strengthened.
Some doubt Anthony is capable of telling the truth about what happened — whether under oath for a court case or under contract for cash.
"With Casey, you just never know," said Ashton, who considers her the most skilled liar he has encountered in a long career spent prosecuting criminals. "If it were an admirable talent, she would be amazing at it."
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