In the glory days, when Clarence Darrow argued from morning ‘til night, and crowds fought for a seat in the gallery, a criminal trial was both entertainment and constitutional convention. Folks fought for seats, to be present at the event, and to register their support for one side or the other. Bones got broken in the crush of bodies trying to get into the courtroom. Thousands stood outside the courthouse hoping to hear the lawyers’ arguments.
Those days are over, right?
I thought so, but then I heard a story about a fight at the Casey Anthony trial in Orlando, Florida. Two men tried to jump the line of spectators, angling for a seat in the courtroom. Those who had waited for long hours, those folks who’d hopped a plane, stood on line, and decided that they simply must see the defendant for themselves, these folks erupted. The police had to break up the fracas.
Just like the good old days.
Did Casey Anthony kill her daughter? Most folks claim to know one way or the other. To the prosecution, Anthony is a self-absorbed party queen who wanted out of the day-to-day grind of motherhood, and back to discos, parties, and arms of adoring men. To the defense, she is a witness to confusion, a victim herself. When her daughter died in her grandparents’ swimming pool, her father, the man who raped her as a child, hid the body. Casey disassociated and did what child abuse survivors often do: she learned to live a lie.
It’s a tall order for the defense.
Ms. Anthony is said by some to be the most hated woman in America, and so, it is safe to assume, many folks fighting for a seat in the courtroom have come to worship in a temple of hate. Casey Anthony is the other. She is evil. She needs punishment. Nothing works up a crowd like a hated other. The dynamics of the mob are at work. We are all secure when we have a common object of scorn.
One woman reported this morning’s New York Times that she now intends to go to law school based on what she has seen in this trial. She has found a mission. She wants to protect children.
But who will protect Casey Anthony? The task has fallen to a young lawyer named Jose Baez, who gamely trades blow for blow with a prosecutor who seems to regard the trial less as a search for truth than a battle of wills. Both lawyers have worn thin the patience of the judge, who longs for order, the judicial fetish.
But trial isn’t orderly. Trial is war.
Press accounts say there is no physical evidence linking Casey Anthony to her daughter. Her motive is the motive of all young parents: overwhelming fatigue and nostalgia for freedom lost. Did she lie? Why, yes, apparently she did. The case for the state, though circumstantial, seems damning. But if liars are guilty of murder then there are not many among us who are not murderers. All have sinned, the good book reminds.
And that, I suspect, is what draws folks to the Anthony trial, and why passions are stirred by this case. We watch this young mother and listen to the allegations against her with a horror laced with an unconscious pleasure. She is accused of doing what we all wish we could do without consequence: the claim is she set her private demons loose; she walked on the wild side, auditioning for a role of her own in Natural Born Killers. Do you deny it? Then explain why horror sells, crime rivets and murder is endless fascinating as a form of entertainment. In some secret place, we are all Casey Anthony.
But we cannot admit it, so we engage in these great public spectacles of hatred, cheered on by such queens of rage as Nancy Grace. We feel good damning the other, and enjoy the self-righteous satisfaction of knowing they did the crime, not us. But I suspect what draws us to these trials is the same grisly urge that makes us pause at the site of a tragic car accident: the site draws us, irresistibly, to darker images just below the surface, images that make killers, or at least potential killers of us all. We all want ringside seats in the state of nature. Watching these trials is a form of public worship. We banish the devil within, and we seek to kill evil.
Did Casey Anthony kill her daughter? I don’t know. But I do know that plenty want to kill Casey Anthony for the simple reason that they see too much of something in her that they do not want to recognize in themselves. There’s plenty of guilt on display in the Casey Anthony, and, thus far, little of it is the defendant’s.