Casey Anthony’s Not Guilty Verdict Shocked America. A New Documentary Says We Got It All Wrong.
Toward the end of Casey Anthony: Where the Truth Lies, filmmaker Alexandra Dean asks Anthony, who was famously acquitted of capital murder in 2011 after her daughter’s death, how she’s feeling about wrapping up filming. “I’m in a state of trying to patch up the bleeding,” she replies. “Like I was completely spliced open and everything came out.”
The visceral image captures the tone of the story she tells. The three-part Peacock series, which airs Nov. 29, is a sometimes painful journey through Anthony’s psyche and the public and media reaction to the social media trial of the century — livestreamed everywhere from the Washington Post to CNN — that turned the then-25-year-old into a nationally despised villain.
After the not guilty verdict was handed down, Anthony has rarely been heard from. She exists in the ether as a kind of monstrous figure of cable news, anointed “tot mom” by a disgusted Nancy Grace — a projection screen for misogynist fantasy and moralizing about bad motherhood. Even the announcement of the docuseries prompted a massive backlash.
“Here was a woman that was known still, a decade after being acquitted by a jury, as one of the most hated women in America,” Dean, whose previous subjects include Paris Hilton and the women behind Playboy, told BuzzFeed News last week. “And I thought, Well, we never heard from her, so shouldn't we hear her side of the story?”
Even just the name conjures up images: Of Anthony as a young mom on the floor, hugging her tiny daughter, Caylee, in family portraits released when her daughter went missing in 2008. Or the Facebook pictures that inundated TV broadcasts and newspapers after her arrest that summer, of a smiling, blue-eyed twentysomething at a club, her hair slightly wild. Or, most likely, photos from the trial of a fragile, pale young woman, hair swept up off her face, looking shocked and pained behind a courtroom table.
Anthony herself, now 36, was not available for interviews. But Dean told me that during the pandemic, Anthony had been considering writing a book about her experiences. After all, both her defense attorney and her prosecutor did, and the prosecution’s portrait of her became a Lifetime TV movie. She agreed to meet with Dean in an effort to get to know each other.
“I knew straight away from her that she had gone through 10 years of intensive therapy and that process had been extremely important for her,” Dean said.
“There’s a big distance here from the person we initially saw on that courtroom stand who was very, very closed and was fighting with some demons,” Dean said. “This woman that was sitting in front of me clearly had thought through everything in a really, really profound way.”
Dean set up an Airbnb in Orlando, for six months, where they talked and talked. And Anthony’s entire story came out.
Everyone thinks they know Casey Anthony’s story. But Where the Truth Lies explores the possibility that the familiar case was mediated by dysfunctional dynamics in her family.
In the documentary, Casey says her father, George Anthony, an underemployed former cop, sexually abused her from the ages of 8 to 12. “He smothered me several times,” she says. “I’d wake up the next morning or even hours later knowing that it had happened again.” (George and Casey’s mother, Cindy Anthony, released a statement in 2017 denying Casey’s claims of sexual abuse: “George, who has continued to try and move forward from this tragedy and who was vindicated on multiple occasions, is once again forced to relive the hints, rumors, lies and allegations that are being made by Casey Anthony.” They both refused to talk to Dean for the documentary. BuzzFeed News tried to contact Anthony through a lawyer and publicly listed information but has not yet received a response.)
Her mother, Cindy, worked as a nurse. Casey says she was mostly invested in selling an image of the perfect family, clinging to that idea even if it involved making her daughter have a graduation party even when she didn’t have enough credits to graduate.
When Casey was drugged and raped at a party at 19, she got pregnant, and she says Cindy asked her to pretend she wasn’t. “I spent my entire life protecting our perfect beautiful little family,” Casey says, sadly, in the documentary.
By the time Caylee was born in 2005, Casey, who aspired to be a photographer and had worked as a contractor at Universal Studios, was trying to save money so she could move into her own place. Cindy had kicked George out for alleged infidelity. But then he came back. “I didn’t leave when I should have,” Casey says in the documentary. “The moment I found out I was pregnant I should’ve left.”
Instead, Casey would say that she was leaving Caylee with her friend “Zanny” when she was actually bringing her to hangouts with friends, so as not to leave her with George. And her boyfriends and friends featured in the docuseries all recall that she was a doting, devoted mother. She became a club promoter to save money but didn’t tell her mother out of fear that Cindy would try to stop her.
Then, on June 18, 2008, George woke Casey up, saying 2-year-old Caylee was missing. They went to look for her.
She explains that all she remembers is George standing there with Caylee. “She was soaking wet,” she says. “He handed her to me. Said it was my fault. That I caused it. But he didn’t rush to call 911 and he wasn’t trying to resuscitate her. I collapsed with her in my arms. She was heavy, and she was cold.”
Then she switches into the present tense. “He takes her from me and he immediately softens his tone and says, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ I wanted to believe him. He took her from me and he went away.” That was the last time she saw her daughter.
Some of the family story told in Where the Truth Lies was available in conversations Anthony had with court psychiatrists before she went on trial. But there’s a striking, cathartic quality about seeing Anthony take up the screen, be a person, own her feelings.
And like Allen v. Farrow, which reconsidered Dylan Farrow’s allegations against Woody Allen, or Leaving Neverland, about two men who said Michael Jackson abused them, Where the Truth Lies revisits the Anthony case with a post–#MeToo understanding of how the criminal justice system and the media misunderstood trauma.
The media and public later obsessed over why she never called the police. “During the 31 days, I genuinely believed that Caylee was still alive,” she says. “My father kept telling me she was OK. I had to keep following his instructions. He told me what to do. I tried to act as normal as I could.”
It was Cindy who called 911 to report Caylee missing. The police interviewed Casey, who stonewalled by mentioning a job at Universal that she no longer had and the nanny she had concocted to explain time away from home to her mother.
Dean said she didn’t know the details of the police investigation when she began working on the documentary. She described the process of interviewing law enforcement as a “real gut punch.”
“They said Casey lied and therefore was the prime suspect,” Dean said. “And they said George lied, but that didn't make him a murderer. And they say it almost back to back.”
The press went wild. Why hadn’t she called the police? Why did she not just tell everyone where her daughter was?
Casey was arrested for lying to police. The press went wild. Why hadn’t she called the police? Why did she not just tell everyone where her daughter was? The pictures of her club promotion work trickled out; she became a monster mom partying soon after her toddler’s death. (In the documentary, Casey says she often dissociated after Caylee’s death, and that she hadn’t been partying; she had simply been doing her job as a club promoter.)
Caylee’s remains were uncovered that December near their house, proof positive to the dissociated Casey that her daughter was definitely gone. According to Casey, her image-obsessed parents had already been caught up in the media spotlight since the news of Caylee being missing had turned into a national mystery. They created a nonprofit foundation for missing children, and defense investigator Patrick McKenna recalls in the documentary being in their home the day their granddaughter’s remains were found.
The scene struck him as emotionally incongruous. “Geraldo wants 9 o’clock but we have the Today show,” he recalls George saying, while a volunteer in the background talked about getting $27,000 more for the foundation. McKenna also says George proudly showed him a boat sporting the foundation’s banner. “There’s something really fucked up about this family,” McKenna remembers thinking. (Cindy and George have not commented on these allegations.)
George testified at the grand jury proceedings that resulted in Casey’s indictment. And she went on trial in 2011, charged with capital murder.
At the trial, Casey’s attorney Jose Baez presented a different version of what had happened to Caylee. “She never was missing. Caylee Anthony died…when she drowned in her family’s swimming pool,” Baez said.
He brought out a volunteer of the Caylee Marie Anthony Foundation who said she had an affair with George and testified that he had told her Caylee’s death had been an accident that spiraled out of control. (George denied he had had an affair.) He tried to give context about the family dysfunction, bringing in an ex-boyfriend’s testimony about the alleged sexual abuse. (Some of it was deemed inadmissible in court.)
The prosecution basically put Casey’s character on the docket. Prosecutor Jeff Ashton told the jury that this was a case about motherhood, “the clash between that responsibility, and the expectations that go with it, and the life that Casey Anthony wanted to have.” By his framing, she was a “party girl,” out clubbing while her daughter was missing; she’d participated in a “hot body” contest; she was “happy” after Caylee’s death.
The fact that so much of the case relied on George’s testimony to police, which placed Casey as the last person with Caylee and alleged there had been “a smell of human decomposition” in her car, took a back seat to the spectacle of a “bad mom” and a family melodrama.
When the not guilty verdict came in, there was shock and social media outrage. “This is O.J. Number 2,” one trial spectator said. Kim Kardashian tweeted, “WHAT!!!!???!!!! CASEY ANTHONY FOUND NOT GUILTY!!!! I am speechless!!!” Another user captured the anger against her: “My heart is ripped apart! How dare those idiots on that Jury not see the truth? That b---- killed her kid! Who the hell killed Caylee then?”
Even the trial judge later said he was shocked. Casey faced death threats. Many “former friends” went on talk shows to promote theories. (In the documentary, one former friend is questioned regarding his speculations about how the made-up “Zanny the nanny” supposedly was inspired by the drug Xanax, an unsubstantiated theory that later spread onto true crime forums.)
Casey says Cindy and George made a career of talking about her for money, appearing on Dr. Phil as well as more recent specials like 2017’s A&E series Casey Anthony’s Parents Speak.
“There’s some things Cindy and I don’t agree [on],” George told Dr. Phil. “I could not be out celebrating and having a good time [while Caylee was missing].”
Casey Anthony disappeared after the verdict. She went to live with McKenna, the defense investigator, and his family for the first few years of her posttrial life. In the documentary, we see the familial relationship she developed with her entire defense team, including other forensic experts and attorneys.
She says she mourned, went to therapy, and sometimes allowed herself to grapple with what she fears actually happened to Caylee. She started to read the work of bloggers who took apart her father’s statements, which she said made her think more clearly about what took place.
In the documentary, Casey watches footage of her daughter’s memorial service for the first time. She had purposely avoided it because she had already been arrested and wasn’t involved in its preparation. Dean said she was careful to check in on Casey’s feelings about the emotional scene. “It’s a dance between us,” she said. “You can’t just inflict this.”
Casey breaks down as she watches it on camera. Standing at a lectern next to his wife, her father speaks about feeling sad that his granddaughter’s death meant strangers won’t get to “smell her hair, smell the sweet sweat when she came in from outside.” He adds, “To get a hug from a small child, that gives me energy like you couldn’t imagine,” he says. (During the pre-trial investigation, psychologist William Weitz described in a deposition George’s comments about his granddaughter at a bizarrely public memorial service as “unusual, and very ‘sensual.’”)
“That scared little girl,” Casey says — it’s not quite clear if she’s talking about herself or her daughter.
In the documentary, Casey says her mother refuses to give her her daughter’s ashes, but the two still talk occasionally; Cindy and George are still together. “Casey does talk to her mom and her brother,” Dean told me. “She doesn't talk to them often, and I wouldn't call their relationship close, but they do communicate.”
She’s now a legal assistant to McKenna and mostly makes her living in accounting work. “It’s a small life, you know,” Dean said about Casey’s current existence. “She has a close friend, she has the people she trusts.” Many people in Where the Truth Lies point out how physically small Casey is. In real life, Dean says, people often tell Casey she looks like a tiny Casey Anthony, startled by the reality, as compared to the enormous images projected of her on screens.
“I felt by the end of the project that I had witnessed somebody revisit and process some pretty awful memories and trauma,” Dean said. “I thought that where she got into was a place of greater understanding of what she thought had happened. But I think the process caused her a lot of agony.”
Dean said the two have stayed in touch. “For Casey, in the end, she personally has come to the place where she feels like it has been helpful, which means a lot to me.”
In one of the more resonant scenes in the series, she and Dean visit her old house, the one where so much happened, but also where she raised her daughter. “That scared little girl,” Casey says — it’s not quite clear if she’s talking about herself or her daughter. “Part of me will always, always be trapped here.” ●