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Casey Anthony trial acquittal: Death of Caylee Anthony is still a mystery

Casey Anthony, the Florida mother accused of killing her two-year-old child with chloroform and duct tape, was acquitted on Tuesday of first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse, and aggravated manslaughter of a child.

The verdict shocked many legal commentators and trial-watchers who had long assumed that Ms. Anthony would be convicted and perhaps sent to Florida’s death row.

But the jury of five men and seven women, who heard testimony in the month-long trial and deliberated nearly 11 hours, viewed the case differently. The relatively quick not guilty verdicts are an apparent rebuke of the government’s case, which lacked any direct evidence of Anthony’s involved in the death of her daughter, Caylee. Despite this lack of evidence the state pushed for a possible death sentence.

The jury was given the option of convicting Anthony of a lesser charge, manslaughter, but decided against that. After the verdict, they declined an invitation to speak to the media.

Defense Attorney Jose Baez called it a bittersweet victory.

“While we are happy for Casey, there are no winners in this case. Caylee has passed on far too soon,” he said, referring to Ms. Anthony’s daughter.

He added: “Casey did not murder Caylee. It is that simple, and today our system of justice has not dishonored her memory by a false conviction.”

Lawson Lamar, the state attorney for Orange and Osceola Counties, said he never criticizes a jury verdict.

“Despite what your personal view as to guilt or innocence might be, the criminal justice system has worked,” he said.

He noted that because Caylee’s body was not discovered until six months after her death, much of the evidence had decomposed or degraded. “This was a bare bones case, very, very difficult to prove,” he said. “The condition of the remains worked to our significant disadvantage.”

As the verdict was announced in the packed Orlando courtroom of Chief Judge Belvin Perry, Ms. Anthony looked pale and frightened. Then, as the clerk read the words “Not Guilty” on count one, her face eased and she burst into tears.

The “not guilty” verdicts continued on the two other felony charges. In essence, the panel acquitted Anthony of all charges related to Caylee’s death.

Assistant State Attorneys Linda Burdick, Jeff Ashton, and Frank George sat stunned and stone-faced after the verdict was read. Casey’s parents, George and Cindy Anthony, left the courtroom soon after the verdict was read.

The jurors convicted Ms. Anthony of four misdemeanor charges of giving false information to law enforcement officers. Each of those charges carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison.

Had she been found guilty of first-degree murder she would have faced a possible death sentence or life in prison. Instead, with time already served in pre-trial detention, she faces, at most, a maximum sentence of several months.

Chief Judge Perry set sentencing for 9 a.m. Thursday.

The verdict came after a month-long trial that captivated much of the nation by presenting a mystery that seemed to defy solution. Why would a mother wait 31 days before mentioning to her family, friends, or the police that her young child was missing?

Prosecutors said Anthony killed her daughter, Caylee, in June 2008 because she was tired of being a mother and wanted to live the life of a single, carefree 22-year-old.

They said she drugged the toddler with chloroform and then pressed duct tape against her mouth and nose to suffocate the child. She then hid the body in her car for several days, they said, then dumped it in a wooded area a quarter mile from the family home.

Defense attorneys said Caylee accidentally drowned in the family’s swimming pool and that Casey went into denial about the tragedy. They said Casey’s father, George, helped dispose of the body and cover up the death.

Caylee was last seen alive on June 16, 2008. Authorities recovered her skeletal remains six months later in the wooded area.

No direct physical evidence proved the mother caused her daughter’s death. But prosecutors encouraged the jury to view the case as a whole and consider strong circumstantial evidence, including a foul odor in Anthony’s car that government witnesses – and even her own father – said was the distinct smell of a decomposing human body.

In his closing argument, Baez urged the jurors not to get caught up in the strong emotions that have followed the case since Anthony was arrested in 2008.

He told the jurors during his closing argument on Sunday that it was the government’s burden to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt and that the defense did not have to prove anything.

“Don’t speculate,” he said. “Don’t guess. It has to be proven to you beyond and to the exclusion of any reasonable doubt.”

Court personnel had arranged a room for the media to interview jurors about their deliberations. The jurors, whose names have not been released, declined to speak to reporters.

Although many commentators had opined about the strength of the state’s case, prosecutors were unable at trial to present any direct physical evidence proving that Anthony played a role in her daughter’s death. They argued that the three pieces of duct tape found with Caylee’s skeletal remains were the murder weapon. But there no finger prints on the tape and the only unidentified DNA detected excluded both Caylee and her mother.

Defense attorneys said it was speculation that the tape caused Caylee’s death, and that the state – in a capital case – must prove that murder was committed.

Most of the trial was televised and the entire proceeding could be followed via a live video feed from the Orlando courtroom. It sparked an active Internet dialogue and speculation about how Caylee may have died and why Casey Anthony acted so coldly after her daughter disappeared.

Photographs showed Anthony within days of Caylee’s death dancing at a nightclub in a “hot body contest.” Prosecutors showed the jury a photo of a tattoo Anthony obtained two weeks after Caylee’s death. It said “Bella Vita,” beautiful life in Italian. Defense attorneys suggested to the jury that the tattoo was a tribute to her daughter, not a declaration of independence.

“I am happy for Casey,” Baez said after the verdict. “I am ecstatic for her and I want her to be able to grieve and grow and somehow get her life back together.”

He added that if there was any lesson from the long legal saga it related to the capital punishment. “This case is a perfect example of why the death penalty does not work and why we need to stop and look and think twice about a country that tries to kill its own citizens,” he said. “I think if this case gets any attention it should focus on that issue.”

Baez added: “The best feeling I have today is that when I go home and my daughter asks me what did you do today I can say I saved a life.”

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