Some Thoughts on Casey Anthony Murder Trial Fever

Today's New York Times tells us that the trial of Casey Anthony, who's facing the death penalty for allegedly murdering her toddler Caylee, has become "this year's hot attraction" for tourists passing time in central Florida. Even Mickey Mouse has abandoned his gig to go watch the drama unfold.

Okay, not really—he's far too dedicated an employee to ever act so irresponsibly. But people who are not cartoons, at least not obviously so, have been engaging in some rather unusual decision- and sacrifice-making, not to mention behaviors, in attempting to secure daily passes to the criminal justice media spectacle du jour. Such as:

  • Standing in the blazing Florida sun for 10 hours at a clip
  • Sleeping in line overnight (at least it's cooler)
  • Scuffling
  • Extreme-scuffling/brawling
  • Running around the courthouse like they're at Pamplona and a bull is chasing them, or they're rushing toward a Gap store where all the items have just been declared free, or they've completely lost all sense of perspective and decorum

Just as strange and disturbing as the brawls and ticket stampedes are some of the reactions people are having to the "characters" in the trial. "I feel like I know these people," one woman told the Times, adding that she's read "95 percent" of the case depositions and hearing transcripts. If Anthony is acquitted, "the crowd will form a riot ... I believe she is the most hated person in America." Another woman claims that she's "cried many, many tears" for Caylee—a girl she never met, and who was sadly just one of many children to lose their lives under suspicious or violent circumstances.

What about this trial in particular has gripped these spectators so? The Times explains a bit:

The women in line (and they are mostly women) say they have been particularly moved by the sordid death of the adorable Caylee and the apparent callousness of Ms. Anthony, who prosecutors say killed her child because she grew tired of motherhood and then failed to report the child missing for a month. And when she did contact the police, she blamed a never-to-be-located babysitter for kidnapping Caylee.

But anger-channeling isn't the only reason; another seems to involve, to use Bonita Burton's word for it, an "obsession." In an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel that runs rather high on projection, Burton makes mention that her own daughter physically resembles Caylee before launching into a series of generalizations about "women," "mothers," and "daughters." As she claims, "Every mom who's run the sickening race through the Target aisles, calling for a lost child, has a special connection to this case. And every mom who's sacrificed their fitness routines, TV shows and social lives for sleepless nights, Yo Gabba Gabba marathons and Friday nights at Birthday World has a special outrage."

But what about the moms who haven't followed this trial at all, or don't even know that it's taking place? They're possibly not very outraged. What about the moms who are withholding judgment of Anthony until a verdict is reached? Or the moms who were disgusted and disheartened by the OJ trial, the Scott Peterson trial, and all the other super-hyped murder trials that have helped to transform real human suffering into a commercial product to be sold from the magazine racks installed at supermarket check-out lines? And what about the moms who actually can pass up the magazines full of Casey Anthony exposes in favor of ones starring model-momlebrity Angelina Jolie, because they're not interested in getting caught up in any morbid-tale media cycles?

Which brings up the ultimate, depressing theme running throughout this twisted murder show: Much of it involves ratings and profits, and the people so caught up in the drama might just be allowing themselves to be duped. As Times reporter Brian Stelter wrote earlier this month, the Casey Anthony saga is a "multidimensional soap opera" for HLN, the network broadcasting the action. Before the Anthony trial began, ratings were slumping. But ever since, HLN's audience "has more than doubled," which has led to more coverage and higher ratings. And more ka-ching! "I want to replicate this when the Conrad Murray trial starts," an HLN exec told Stelter, apparently cognizant of the current emotions-to-dollars conversion rate.

If people can practically catch all the drama unfold on television, from the comfort of their own homes, then why are they dropping tons of cash and getting into fights just to watch a tiny portion of it in person? One reason is that people have been fascinated by trials since forever. But also, today's Times report suggests, people want to be able to say "I was there" when Anthony testified on her own behalf. Despite the entertainmentification of life, people still appreciate and seek out authentic, unique experiences, it seems.

Of course, all the trial chasers could simply head down to their local criminal court and get as much drama as what the Orlando courthouse offers. Who knows: maybe without all the cameras and brawlers to distract them, they might realize during a particularly introspective moment that, if they only dedicated the same amount of energy to improving their communities as they do to following a storyline that they have no real control over, they could actually affect the world around them in a productive way. Then maybe all the Caylees in America could grow up safely and securely, and there would be nothing to stand in line for anymore.

[NY Times, Orlando Sentinel. Image via AP]