The Florida woman accused of murdering her 3-year-old daughter stopped the trial’s first day with a meltdown yesterday. Diane Dimond, inside the courtroom, asks: Was it emotion—or an act?
The severity of her situation seems to have finally and completely dawned on 25-year-old murder suspect Casey Anthony. As Judge Belvin Perry began to read the specific charges against her on the opening day of jury selection …. “ Child endangerment, first-degree murder which carries the penalty of death….” Casey stared down at the table and began to rock herself back and forth. Tissues were offered and she sat clutching them to her face. She nodded her head as if inside she was saying, “No! No! No!” And then the spigot of tears opened.
“On or about June 15, 2008, this defendant did cause the death of her daughter, Caylee,” the Judge read.
Casey Anthony’s uncontrollable tears and audible sobs could be heard throughout the Pinellas County courtroom. It was riveting to everyone there.
The scene looked staged for an episode of Law & Order. The participants weren’t facing toward the judge’s bench, as is the norm; they were all facing toward the public seating section where the first pool of 150 potential jurors had been ordered to sit. Casey Anthony was having a meltdown directly in front of the group of people who had been called to potentially judge her fate. They couldn’t help but watch as defense attorney Cheney Mason soothingly patted her on the shoulder and whispered in her ear. Her tiny, 5-foot frame and pale white prison skin seemed to glisten with anguish. Understandable, under the circumstances.
Or maybe it was all an act.
In a rarely seen courtroom moment, the prosecution rose to stop the reading of the charges and asked to approach the bench. The specific objection was not made public, but before resuming the proceedings Judge Perry told the gathered group…. “I want to remind everyone. If you are chosen as a juror, you will be required to consider only the evidence and emotions are not to be considered during this trial.”
As he spoke, a female bailiff delivered a stack of thick brown paper restroom hand towels to the defendant. Casey daintily tore a corner off one to blow her red nose.
On this first day of jury selection, some 100 miles away from Orlando where the capital murder trial will eventually be held, a total of 67 people submitted to the juror process. More than 40 were excused for hardship reasons.
The scene looked staged for an episode of Law & Order.
From the racially diverse group, there were some who demurred because they were the primary caregivers for elders or young children. Some admitted having a problem understanding English, one was on heavy tranquilizers for a bad back, another was an active military man who said the U.S. Coast Guard was shipping him out to Kodiak, Alaska, one 82-year-old gentleman was allowed to claim an automatic exemption because of his age.
But blame the nation’s economy for the overwhelming number of potential jurors who said they simply wouldn’t be able to pay their bills if they were seated on a trial that sequestered them away from home for six to eight weeks. “I’ll be evicted,” one African-American woman said. Many other self-employed people—a dog groomer, a housekeeper, a locksmith—flatly stated it would mean their economic doom if they were seated. They were all excused.
Dr. Randy Fisher, a psychologist and professor from the University of Central Florida, has been a jury consultant on several high-profile cases. He said this hardship phase of questioning is just the first of at least three rounds the panel will have to go through. As the lawyers sift down to find 12 suitable jurors and eight alternates, there will be also be, “The pretrial publicity phase where they’ll be asked if they’ve already made up their minds about her guilt,” Fisher told The Daily Beast. “Then they’ll have to ask them all about the death penalty… and whether they are for or against… will they be reluctant to convict” because of this ultimate punishment.
So, what kind of juror is each side looking for? Veteran Florida attorney William Sheaffer, who is an on-air consultant for WFTV-TV News in Orlando, is reluctant to say. “What we thought we knew was proven to be wrong today. We thought the defense would be going after young men who might be attracted to Casey. Yet we had a young man tell the court he thought she was guilty!”
It was reported here that the prosecution would be after young mothers who could sympathize with Casey Anthony. Yet several of them were excused without a question from the state ever being asked.
Judge Belvin Perry is a task master. He has set aside five days for this process to wrap up. Attorney Shaffer says he thinks it might be done. But Judge Perry had said if progress was being made here in Pinellas County Cour,t he’ll keep everyone working for a sixth, seventh, and eighth day. Given the depth the negative economic realities in the state of Florida—with its unemployment rate hovering around 11 percent—it could take a lot longer than that.
Investigative journalist and syndicated columnist Diane Dimond has covered all manner of celebrity and pop-culture stories. Her latest book is Cirque Du Salahi, which uncovered the full story behind Tareq and Michaele Salahi. Dimond has written extensively about the John Edwards sex scandal for The Daily Beast and she first broke the news that King of Pop Michael Jackson was under investigation for child molestation. She is author of the book, Be Careful Who You Love—Inside the Michael Jackson Case. She lives in New York with her husband, broadcast journalist Michael Schoen.