Seven years later, looking back on Presumed Guilty: Casey Anthony: The Inside Story

St. Petersburg resident Peter Golenbock co-authored this book about Orlando woman Casey Anthony.

click to enlarge Casey Anthony The Inside Story - via Peter Golenbock
via Peter Golenbock
Casey Anthony The Inside Story

Unless you were living under a rock in 2008, you heard about Casey Anthony, accused of murdering her missing three-year-old daughter, Caylee. It was “the trial of the century” (never mind there were still nearly 90 years left to go), and a media circus

Presumed Guilty: Casey Anthony: The Inside Story, written by Jose Baez and Peter Golenbock, delves into this spectacular show trial that exposed deep secrets, checkered pasts, and character flaws in witnesses, the Anthony family, and even law enforcement as the drama played out over three years. For true crime aficionados, this book belongs on the shelf next to Capote’s In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter.

Baez, Anthony's defense attorney, took copious notes throughout the entire process, from July, 2008 when Casey hired him, until July, 2011, when she walked free, exonerated of everything. He kept neat files, and when it was all over, he turned to Peter Golenbock to tell his story. Golenbock, one of the nation’s preeminent sports writers, seems an unlikely choice, but he explained the connection.

“Baez knew my work and liked my book Personal Fouls, about North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano, where I wrote about big money in college sports,” said Golenbock, explaining that Valvano resigned after the book’s publication.

It took Golenbock five months working closely with Baez to write a readable book. He had not followed the trial, and never met Casey or any of the other players, but worked from Baez’s files.

“Jose told me the story and gave me files that documented everything about the case, and I wrote the book,” he said.” He’s got a mind like a steel trap… I put things in order and fleshed it out. It was one of the fastest books I’ve written, but we needed to get it out.”

It’s been seven years since Casey left the stage, but the book remains remarkably relevant. It documents how the media found her guilty months before the trial began, basing their case on rumors and flimsy evidence. Nancy Grace and other tough-talking TV lawyers led the pack; Jeff Ashton, the chief prosecutor, who was running for State Attorney, asked for the death penalty and preened before cameras, eating up the free publicity. Cops leaked hearsay evidence to reporters, before the defense heard it.

Orlando was besieged by private investigators, psychics and tabloid reporters, all trying to get the money shot, a hot tip or any tidbit they could blare across media outlets to garner a little money or fame.True crime writers jockeyed for courtroom seats. Baez dubbed them the "wack pack." Barroom TVs were fixed on the trial. Casey Anthony was either a demon or a victim of a heartless media using her to boost ratings. Bookies were even taking bets on the outcome.

Meanwhile, young Casey remained remarkably stoic as she was led back and forth from the courtroom surrounded by guards to protect her from the taunting crowd. Visitors were removed from the gallery for yelling, "She killed her child!" However, the infant apparently drowned in a home pool accident while Casey’s father was babysitting.

Jose Baez never gave up, despite demeaning remarks from the media, referring to Baez as a “rookie” unknown; “incompetent” for taking the bar exam several times before passing it. Baez endured racist slurs; he was well-known in the Hispanic community, which comprised his main practice. Golenbock, who also holds a law degree, said it’s not unusual to repeat the bar exam: “It’s really tough.”

Baez proved the evidence was fairly useless… Caylee’s body was buried nearly six months before recovery; the decomposition smell detected in the car probably came from garbage, not Caylee’s body. The duct tape the prosecution claimed suffocated the child belonged to Casey’s father, who attempted suicide; it was eventually revealed he'd been sexually abusing his own daughter since she was eight. Suspicion that Caylee was his daughter was disproved by DNA.

As Baez winds through this tawdry tale, we find Casey’s parents earned big bucks for TV appearances while she languished in jail, held on an exorbitant bond, and that her brother had also abused her as teen. Orange County law enforcement, hell-bent on a conviction, even threw one officer under the bus because he wouldn’t alter his testimony to imply guilt.

In the end, Baez concludes Casey was simply a frightened young mother who really loved her child, but became a pawn as people made money exploiting the death of her young daughter. It’s a cautionary tale that shakes the justice system’s credibility, politics and the media’s insatiability for shocking headlines. It’s a depressing take on today’s media-dependent society, and leaves one wondering just who to trust. Baez’s victory earned him fame, respect and a teaching job at Harvard.

Casey, meanwhile, is still hiding.

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