Mothers, murder and tabloid-TV a volatile mix

Posted July 12, 2011, at 8:52 p.m.

The Casey Anthony story was gold for tabloid-like TV news programs such as NBC’s Today show. It had all the elements that appealed to the white, middle-class suburban women who watch these shows: a cute baby who went missing, an attractive but troubled mother, a mystery about the baby’s fate and, of course, sex.

Though a postscript may follow when and if Casey Anthony writes a book, the story concluded last week when a jury acquitted Anthony of murder and child abuse but found her guilty of lying to law enforcement officers.

Reaction, particularly among women, was powerful. Clearly, this case and verdict hit a nerve.

As with the O.J. Simpson trial and verdict, the Anthony case reminds us that our judicial system is built on the assumption that it is better to acquit a guilty person than convict an innocent one. Observers of the Anthony trial, including seasoned legal experts, believed the jury would find the woman guilty. But while all signs pointed to her guilt, the “beyond a reasonable doubt” threshold is higher.

In the Simpson case, it was a star-struck judge whose rulings may have hamstrung the prosecution and favored the defense. But in the Anthony case, though there was great public interest, the judge and jurors likely did not sympathize with the defendant or accept her claim that her lies to police came as a result of sexual abuse at the hands of her father and brother, abuse the two men deny.

Prosecutors painted Ms. Anthony as a “party girl” who wanted to be rid of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, even though the baby’s grandparents were her primary caregivers, not the mother. The circumstantial evidence was damning. She danced and drank at a club with a boyfriend while her baby was missing. She lied about trips around Florida, about a job she didn’t hold and about a nanny she didn’t hire.

If Ms. Anthony did kill her daughter, as prosecutors asserted, the reaction by women is understandable. Women, when they become mothers, are biologically impelled to protect and nurture their children. Doing so necessarily involves sacrifice and self-denial. So when a woman, as prosecutors argued, kills her child to avoid such responsibility, women everywhere are rightly outraged.

Of course, the baby’s father should have helped Ms. Anthony raise the child. The identity of that man remains a mystery, with some evidence suggesting that the baby resulted from a casual and brief affair. The man named by Casey Anthony’s mother as the baby’s father was killed in a car accident before the baby was born.

So do the death threats that have been made against Ms. Anthony, though obviously unacceptable, come from a primal outrage against this most heinous betrayal of a daughter by her mother? Or does the Casey Anthony case merely show that Americans are even further immersed in virtual life, saving their passions for family drama that unfolds on TV rather than the flesh and blood that surround them? Maybe it’s a little of both.