The Death of Caylee Anthony: Untangling the Case That Ended in Casey Anthony Being Found Not Guilty

The Death of Caylee Anthony: Untangling the Case That Ended in Casey Anthony Being Found Not Guilty
·22 min read

When it comes to a murder case, the ideal end result is obtaining justice for the victim by punishing the person or people responsible. And if justice is unobtainable, there's at least the hope that the truth will come out.

When it comes to the 2008 death of 2-year-old Caylee Anthony, all of the above has proved fleeting.

But not for lack of trying. Casey Anthony, who in 2011 was found not guilty of murdering her daughter, has been a target of rapt fascination—not an uncommon result when the world diverts its attention to everything there is to know about the accused. Understandably, that's usually where those who have so many questions hope the answers will be found.

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"That's the really sad part about this tragedy, is that as soon as the prosecutor made it about, 'It has to be Amanda, it has to be Amanda,' they took away the fact that this case is about her and what the truth was about what happened to her," Amanda Knox, the American college student who was found guilty in an Italian court of the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher before being freed in 2011 and ultimately exonerated in 2015, told Good Morning America after her ordeal was over, acknowledging how Meredith's name got swept aside as the international scandal unfolded.

Rudy Guede, who has maintained his innocence as well, was convicted in 2008 of sexual assault and killing Meredith while "acting with others" and was sentenced to 30 years in prison, later reduced to 16 years on appeal. His bid for a new trial was denied in 2017 but he was released from prison last year, allowed to serve out the rest of his sentence with community service.

Meanwhile, no one was ever legally declared responsible for what happened to Caylee Anthony, whose remains were found in the woods less than a mile away from her grandparents' Orlando home, a memorial still standing at the site in her honor. Caylee's grandfather George Anthony said he last saw the child with her mother on June 16, 2008.

Casey Anthony, Most Followed Crime Stories
Casey Anthony, Most Followed Crime Stories

Similar to how there seemed to be a surplus of evidence in the murder of JonBenét Ramsey in 1996, yet ultimately the dozens of pieces never came together to create a cohesive picture of what happened, so piled up the ultimately unconnectable circumstances surrounding Caylee's death.

In the end, the jury voted to acquit Casey of murder, finding her guilty only of four misdemeanor counts of lying to law enforcement. But with the 10-year anniversary of the verdict approaching, there's been some public reflection on how the case unfolded.

"Generally, none of us liked Casey Anthony at all," a male juror from the case told People in a recent interview. "She seems like a horrible person. But the prosecutors did not give us enough evidence to convict. They gave us a lot of stuff that makes us think that she probably did something wrong, but not beyond a reasonable doubt."

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"My decision haunts me to this day," he continued. "I think now if I were to do it over again, I'd push harder to convict her of one of the lesser charges like aggravated manslaughter. At least that. Or child abuse. I didn't know what the hell I was doing, and I didn't stand up for what I believed in at the time."

And hardly a day goes by when he doesn't think about the case, he said.

"Every time I see her face or hear her name, I get a pit in my stomach," the man admitted. "It all comes flooding back. I think about those pictures of the baby's remains that they showed us in court. I remember Casey. I even remember the smell of the courtroom."

Casey's lawyer, Jose Baez, never tried to argue that his client was a saint. But while the prosecution painted a picture of an evil woman who killed her daughter, got rid of the body and went about her life for a month, entering a "hot bod" contest at a club just days after Caylee died, the defense insisted the child's death was an accidental drowning followed by panic and, yes, a lot of obfuscation.

"How in the world can a mother wait 30 days before ever reporting her child missing? That's insane, that's bizarre," Baez said in his opening statement when the trial began in May 2011. "The answer is actually relatively simple. She never was missing. Caylee Anthony died on June 16, 2008 when she drowned in her family's swimming pool."

"What makes this case unique," he told the jury, "is the family that it happened to. You will hear stories about a family that is incredibly dysfunctional, you will hear about ugly things, secret things, things that people don't speak about."

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Baez contended that Casey's inexplicable behavior was a result of her own childhood trauma. Both Casey's father and brother, Lee Anthony, had sexually abused her, Baez alleged, and she had been struggling ever since. What happened to Caylee was just another secret she felt pressured to keep after a lifetime of hiding things, the attorney said.

Countering the prosecution's claim of cold-blooded murder, Baez said that Caylee had drowned in the family's pool on her grandfather's watch and George frightened Casey by telling her she'd go to jail for the rest of her life. He not-so-cryptically told his daughter that he'd take care of it, Baez alleged.

In trying to cloud the few seemingly clear parts of the picture, the defense also suggested that the utility worker who found Caylee's remains had actually done so months earlier but held onto them and then put them in the woods to make a splash with the discovery. (The man denied any wrongdoing whatsoever and later sued Casey for defamation; a judge ruled there wasn't enough evidence to take the complaint to trial and an appeals court upheld the decision.)

Both from the stand and talking to the media, George adamantly denied ever abusing his daughter and testified that he didn't know anything had happened to Caylee until the day she was reported missing.

Tony Lazzaro, the boyfriend Casey was living with when Caylee disappeared, stated in a deposition that Casey had mentioned being physically abused by her father. Casey's ex-fiancé Jesse Grund testified without the jury present that Lee had groped Casey once while she slept and she didn't want him near Caylee. Lee was never questioned in court about it by either side and didn't respond publicly to the accusation.

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Years later, George and Casey remained estranged. "I wish I could be part of her life, but I would never feel comfortable around her. I can't trust her," he said during an October 2018 appearance on Dr. Oz. "I can't trust the things she's going to say out there. I know she's given some other interviews that she said she was never going to do, and things she's said and done, it's just, it's wrong. She needs to just not be here anymore."

In January 2019, however, back on Dr. Oz, George said that his daughter reached out to him after he was severely injured in a car accident and he was ready to forgive her, "for what she has put her mom, me, my son, and also not having Caylee here anymore. I would forgive her for all this stuff."

"I've come to understand it's the only way I'm going to get past a lot of things in my life," he said. "I have to forgive. I'll never forget, but I need to forgive."

Jose Baez, Casey Anthony
Jose Baez, Casey Anthony

Caylee Anthony was born Aug. 9, 2005, when Casey was 19. The identity of Caylee's father remains unknown. A deposition made public in 2012 revealed that Casey had told a psychiatrist that she was impregnated at 18 while she was passed out at a party and she didn't remember anything. The doctor also noted that in five interviews conducted over two years Casey didn't exhibit any evidence of mental illness and her results from a psychological test were normal—surprisingly so, in his opinion.

Jesse Grund, once Casey's fiancée (DNA proved he wasn't Caylee's father), later described a contentious relationship between Casey and her mother, Cindy Anthony, telling People, "Cindy called herself 'Mommy' to Caylee right in front of Casey. It was a calculated move to get under Casey's skin."

Casey lived with her parents, but in June 2008 left for boyfriend Tony Lazzaro's house, taking Caylee with her, after getting into an argument with her mom.

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Lazzaro testified that Casey disciplined Caylee "like any mother would do," warning her about getting too close to the pool at his apartment complex the first time she brought the child over.

Roy House, one of Lazzaro's roommates, testified, "She seemed like a fun party girl, someone that would probably get along well with our group of friends."

"When she started staying with us regularly, we stopped seeing Caylee," House said in court.

Nathan Leziewicz, another roommate, testified that Casey claimed she worked for Universal Studios, but she never came through with a promised ticket hookup or anything else related to the job she ultimately didn't have.

Altogether, three roommates testified that they never witnessed Casey talking on the phone to Caylee or any babysitter while she lived with them.

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As recounted in court testimony and numerous media reports, on July 15, 2008, Cindy and George Anthony got a letter informing them that their car—which Casey had been driving before she abandoned it outside a business in Orlando, claiming it was out of gas—was at a tow yard.

Cindy called 911 that day to report that her daughter had stolen her car and some money, and that she was worried about her granddaughter.

Cindy called 911 again a few hours later after Casey told her that she actually hadn't seen Caylee for an entire month. Moreover, Cindy said on the call, "It smells like there's been a dead body in the damn car."

Casey Anthony, Most Followed Crime Stories
Casey Anthony, Most Followed Crime Stories

Casey then got on the phone at the dispatcher's request, and said she had last seen her daughter 31 days ago with her babysitter Zenaida Gonzales Fernandez. "I've been looking for her and just gone through other resources to find her, which was stupid," she replied when asked why she hadn't reported Caylee missing.

The only woman in the area police found by the name of Zenaida Gonzalez said that she had never met Casey or Caylee Anthony. (Gonzalez later sued Casey for defamation but the case was dismissed in September 2015.)

Casey was arrested on July 16, 2008, on suspicion of lying to law enforcement, possible child abuse and obstruction of a criminal investigation.

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Meanwhile, forensic investigators found possible evidence of decomposition as well as traces of chloroform in the trunk—but a hair couldn't definitively be matched to Caylee.

"George Anthony got into that car, drove it home," prosecutor Linda Drane-Burdick said in her opening statement. "When Cindy Anthony had her first contact with the car, her words to George Anthony were, 'Jesus, what died?'"

Investigators unearthed past Google searches for the likes of "chloroform," "neck-breaking" and "full-proof suffocation" on Cindy's home computer from almost four months before Caylee disappeared.

On Oct. 14, 2008, Casey was indicted on charges of first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse, aggravated manslaughter of a child and four counts of providing false information to law enforcement. Baez, her attorney, spoke of Caylee in the present, as if she were still alive, as no body had been found.

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It wasn't until December 2008 that human remains, including a small skull, were discovered in the woods not far from the Anthony home were positively identified as Caylee's. Duct tape with a trace of a heart, as if a heart-shaped sticker had once been stuck on it, was attached to the mouth of the skull. The remains had been discovered in a trash bag, stuffed in there with a child's pull-up diaper, a Winnie the Pooh blanket and other children's clothing.

On Lifetime's Cellmate Secrets, Casey's former cellblock neighbor Robyn Adams recalled the day the murder suspect found out her daughter's remains had been found.

"They took her to medical, because she couldn't breathe," Robyn said. "She was having an anxiety attack, a panic attack."

George Anthony, Cindy Anthony
George Anthony, Cindy Anthony

Also on the show, guard Silvia Hernandez's opinion was that Casey "didn't act like a regular mother, where 'Oh they found my daughter and she's dead?'—you know, crying, bawling. No, no her behavior at that time was like, 'Oh, s--t. I got caught.'"

The prosecution maintained that Casey used chloroform to render her daughter unconscious, then put duct tape over her nose and mouth, causing Caylee to suffocate. Casey kept the body in the trunk for a few days before finally disposing of it in the woods, "like she was just another piece of trash," Drane-Burdick alleged.

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Cindy Anthony said that she had accidentally searched for "chloroform," testifying that she'd been looking for "chlorophyll," but the prosecution provided evidence that Cindy was logged into her work computer during the time when the suspicious search terms were entered at her house.

Casey Anthony
Casey Anthony

But unable to definitively place Caylee's body in the trunk of the car and with no witnesses or physical evidence connecting Casey to the remains, the prosecution was banking on the semblance of a complete story to sell their case, with an assist from Casey's many lies.

The trial lasted for about six weeks. On July 5, 2011, after deliberating for 10 hours and 40 minutes, the jury found Casey Anthony not guilty of murder and manslaughter. She was convicted of four misdemeanor counts of lying to law enforcement (two of which were later thrown out on appeal).

More than 5.2 million people tuned in to HLN, where Nancy Grace had been tirelessly demanding justice for Caylee in no uncertain terms, making for the largest audience in the network's 29-year history. Fox News and MSNBC also saw significant bumps in viewership around the announcement of the verdict.

Casey was sentenced to four years in jail and fined $4,000, plus court costs; she was released on July 17, 2011, credited for time served.

Judge Belvin Perry later admitted he was shocked by the verdict and tipped his hat to the "very personable" Baez for creating reasonable doubt in the state's circumstantial case and establishing rapport with the jury.

"He came across as someone that you would like," Perry recalled to Savannah Guthrie on Today in 2013. "It's like someone trying to sell a used car. Who are you going to buy it from? The most likable salesperson."

Casey Anthony
Casey Anthony

After the nationally televised trial, Casey walked out of the court a free woman but had to get by a phalanx of angry faces protesting the verdict and demanding justice for Caylee on the way to her lawyer waiting car.

Found to be "the most hated person in America" by E-Poll's E-Score Celebrity research weeks later, she didn't say a word to the press after the trial—no Dr. Phil, no Dateline, no nothing.

In a video reportedly shot in October 2011 and surprisingly posted to YouTube on Jan. 5, 2012, Casey—sporting a short, lighter hairstyle—vowed to remain in hiding for at least another month.

Casey Anthony
Casey Anthony

"It's just a little surreal how much things have changed since July and how many things haven't changed," Casey said in the video. "But the good thing is that things are starting to look up and things are starting to change in a good way. I just hope that things stay good and that they only get better."

She never mentioned her daughter.

Another video followed on Jan. 6, Casey sporting a nose piercing and with darker hair, but the communication dried up soon after.

Her parents, meanwhile, talked to Dr. Phil McGraw in September 2011, George and Cindy heartbroken over not taking any action before it was too late for Caylee. No matter what really did happen to their granddaughter, they did not feel that their daughter was innocent.

"Casey and Caylee, when I saw them leave on June 16th, 2008, that's the last time I saw them together," George said on Dr. Phil, "and Casey, again, is responsible for Caylee, no matter where she was at or what happened." He talked about attempting suicide in January 2009, distraught over Caylee's death and racked with guilt for not having done anything to prevent it.

"I don't want to visualize [how Caylee's life ended]," George said. "Because the only thing I can visualize about Caylee is that beautiful girl that I saw dance around every day, who'd come down the hallway and just make my life beautiful. I just miss her."

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Cindy Anthony said she believed it was possible that Caylee accidentally drowned and Casey panicked. George said he didn't believe that in his heart, but perhaps someone unintentionally gave Caylee an overdose of a sedative or some drug meant to get her to sleep or otherwise quiet her down. (The suggestion appeared to take Cindy by surprise in the moment.)

In June 2012, Piers Morgan revealed he'd had a 10-minute phone chat with Casey, in which she declared she didn't kill Caylee.

"'I did not kill my daughter,'" the former CNN host quoted her on Piers Morgan Tonight. "'There's nothing in this world I've ever been so proud of. There's no one I loved more than my daughter. She's my greatest accomplishment." On the show, Casey's lawyer J. Cheney Mason told Morgan, "She said that to you without any prompting, without any rehearsal, without any lawyering whatsoever."

"Casey had a bad background, lots of problems in her history," the attorney added. "She didn't trust anybody."

She also reportedly told Morgan, "I'm 26 now and I've been through hell...I'm not making gazillions of dollars at the hands of other people, or trying to sell myself to anyone willing to throw a couple of dollars at me. The caricature of me that is out there, it couldn't be further from the truth."

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Belvin Perry, the judge who presided over the murder trial, said on Today in 2013, "There were two sides to Casey Anthony. There was the side that was before the jury, where she portrayed the role of a mother who had lost a child, someone who was wrongfully accused, and then you could notice the change and transformation in her when the jury went out. She was very commanding, she took charge of different things, and you could see her sometimes scolding her attorneys."

Perry recalled her reaction when Baez discussed a plea deal for aggravated manslaughter with his client. "I will never forget that day," he said. "All of a sudden, you heard shouting coming from the holding cell, some four-letter words coming from the holding cell, and she was quite upset. So upset that one counselor suggested that she was incompetent to proceed."

In his best-selling 2012 book Presumed GuiltyCasey Anthony: The Inside Story, Baez questioned why authorities weren't more suspicious of Casey's father, alleging there was "always something hard to understand about George's behavior." He also wrote in a foreword for the 2013 paperback edition that the matter of who really dumped Caylee's body in the woods was the "one loose end that really haunts me."

Rob Lowe played Florida State Attorney Jeff Ashton (who would make headlines in 2015 when his name was found on the leaked list of Ashley Madison users after the affair facilitator was hacked—Ashton publicly apologized, maintaining that he was curious and signed up but never used it to have an affair) in the 2013 Lifetime movie Prosecuting Casey Anthony. The Office's Oscar Nuñez played Baez, while Virginia Welch played Casey.

Rob Lowe, Prosecuting Casey Anthony
Rob Lowe, Prosecuting Casey Anthony

In 2017 Baez won an acquittal for disgraced NFL star Aaron Hernandez on double murder charges. Days later, the onetime New England Patriot was found dead in his prison cell, where he was serving a life sentence for another murder, and his death was ruled a suicide—all covered in Baez's 2018 book, Unnecessary Roughness: Inside the Trial and Final Days of Aaron Hernandez.

Casey was sentenced to a year of probation in 2011 for check fraud. She filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in 2013 in Tampa, claiming she was almost $800,000 in debt, not least due to legal fees, and had only about $1,000 in personal property.

"To some extent...she feels bad that she's having to have all these legal services provided to her and she is unable to compensate anyone," her attorney Andy Chmelir told CNN affiliate Central Florida News 13 at the time. "So she wants closure more than anything else."

Her life went on, relatively quietly in the face of all the notoriety. She's recognizable in public, such as when she attended an anti-Trump rally in West Palm Beach in February 2016, but she has remained one of those infamous characters whom people will claim they wish they could forget and yet want to know more about at the same time.

Casey Anthony
Casey Anthony

In November 2015 she filed to register a company called Case Photography. Since at least 2016, the now 35-year-old Casey has been living with Patrick McKenna, 72, a private investigator who worked for the defense on her case and for the O.J. Simpson defense team back in the 1990s. She was said to be working for him, doing online research and social media searches.

The Miami Herald reported in January that state records showed Casey had registered a business called Case Research & Consulting Solutions in the state of Florida on Dec. 14, using McKenna's longtime address.

On May 23 she caught the attention of TMZ when she called 911 to report that she'd been assaulted by another woman at a bar in West Palm Beach. "It was a repeated incident, it was harassment, on top of the repeat offense," she said on the call, per the outlet. "It was a verbal assault outside and a thrown drink inside. I would like to make an official report."

No one was arrested, but the incident report stated that she and a woman were fighting over a guy they'd both dated in the past. The other woman told Fox News in June that the altercation had "zero to do with an ex-boyfriend. There's more to it I wish to not say."

Casey Anthony
Casey Anthony

In a series of exclusive interviews with the Associated Press in March 2017, her first time speaking directly to a news organization since the trial, Casey presented herself as the victim of the public's rush to judgment. (She also unsuccessfully tried to stop the interviews from being published, citing a third party's "purchase of her story" for $25,000.)

"The queen is proclaiming: 'No, no, sentence first, verdict afterward!'" Casey said, comparing herself to the falsely accused Alice in Alice in Wonderland and the public to the murderous Queen of Hearts hastily calling for her head. "I sense and feel to this day that is a direct parallel to what I lived. My sentence was doled out long before there was a verdict. Sentence first, verdict afterward. People found me guilty long before I had my day in court."

As to what really happened to Caylee, she said, "Everyone has their theories. I don't know. As I stand here today I can't tell you one way or another. The last time I saw my daughter I believed she was alive and was going to be OK, and that's what was told to me."

"I understand why people have the opinions that they do," she added. But at the end of the day, "I don't give a s--t about what anyone thinks about me, I never will. I'm OK with myself, I sleep pretty good at night."

Also in early 2017, Judge Belvin Perry told Orlando's WFTV 9 and the Orlando Sentinel that he believed Caylee's death was in all likelihood an accident.

"The most logical thing that occurred, in my eyesight, based on everything I know about the case, was that [Casey] did not intentionally kill her daughter," Perry told the station. "I think based upon the evidence, the most logical thing that happened was that she tried to knock her daughter out by the use of chloroform and gave her too much chloroform, which caused her daughter to die."

To the newspaper, he said, "There was a possibility that she may have utilized [chloroform] to keep the baby quiet…and just used too much of it, and the baby died. That's just one of the many theories as to how this beautiful young lady tragically met her death."

If Caylee were alive, she "would be a total badass," Casey told the AP in 2017, when her daughter would have been 12. "I'd like to think she'd be listening to classic rock, playing sports" and not putting up with any nonsense.

Sadly, she was doing none of those things, and never had the chance.

(Originally published April 24, 2017, at 4 a.m. PT)

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