Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Prosecuting Casey Anthony (Fox Television/Lifetime, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I ran a Lifetime TV-movie I recorded last weekend, Prosecuting Casey Anthony, the sort of bath in real-life tabloid fodder that makes you feel just a bit dirty watching it at all — especially since I followed it up with the “documentary” on the case, Beyond the Headlines: Casey Anthony, which they aired right after it. I remember being in the Asmara Eritrean Restaurant in City Heights with Charles the day that the Anthony verdict came in, and while I hadn’t followed the case closely (or at all, really), I remember loving that she was acquitted if only because it was a big black eye to that slimeball Nancy Grace, who had covered the case to death on CNN Headline News and made no secret of her belief in Casey’s guilt (I’m using the first name because so many of the dramatis personae are part of the Anthony family — the person she was accused of killing was her baby daughter Caylee, yet another of those pretentiously spelled names for kids that seem to abound these days, and her parents George and Cindy were also major players), to the point that if Casey had been convicted and sentenced to death, Nancy Grace would probably have gone on TV and pleaded with the Florida state authorities (this took place in Orlando, “played” by Winnipeg, Canada in the Lifetime movie, a co-production of the network and Fox Television) to throw the switch on “Old Sparky” herself. Prosecuting Casey Anthony was based on the memoir of one of the two attorneys who — you guessed it — prosecuted Casey Anthony, Jeff Ashton, and the film was based on Ashton’s memoir (listed, intriguingly, as a “novel” on imdb.com!) and built around Rob Lowe, who played Ashton and looked about 20 years younger than the real one on the accompanying documentary. (Indeed, both he and the actress playing his wife looked so young it was inexplicable when he said that this would be his last murder trial because immediately afterwards he was planning to retire.)

I suspect the project was actually in development before the verdict came in because it has the air of one that was meant to celebrate a conviction and had to be rewritten quickly (the teleplay was by Alison Cross and the director was Peter Werner) when the jury verdict went the other way. The comparison between the documentary (as cheesy as it was) and the fiction film was interesting if rather predictable — Rob Lowe was considerably younger and handsomer than the real Jeff Ashton, and likewise Oscar Nuñez was considerably younger and handsomer than the real José Baéz, Casey’s defense attorney (indeed Nuñez bore a striking resemblance to San Diego City Councilmember Todd Gloria), though the actor playing George Anthony, Kevin Dunn, was actually less attractive than the real one — stouter, fatter, with a more gravelly voice — maybe director Werner and his casting people, Stephanie Gorin and Jim Hebner, wanted someone who would be believable as a child molester. One of the defense claims in their opening statement (though they dropped it in the course of the trial because without Casey Anthony’s own testimony — which, wisely, she did not give — there was no way of establishing it in the face of George’s denial) was that Casey had been regularly molested as a child by her dad, and that this had started her on a pattern of dissociating herself from sordid realities (like her dad having sex with her, or her baby dying) by lying and evading.

Prosecuting Casey Anthony wasn’t much of a movie, though it had its moments — notably Baéz’s calling Ashton out on laughing during Baéz’s closing argument — and it made the media frenzy around the case seem more even-handed than it was, more evenly divided between Casey’s supporters and her detractors, when in fact the media were overwhelmingly against Casey and practically formed an electronic lynch mob before the verdict and even afterwards (Nancy Grace came close to foaming at the mouth when she “reported” the verdict on the Headline News Network). I didn’t follow the Casey Anthony hoo-hah when it was going on — I probably wouldn’t have seen the verdict come in “live” if I hadn’t been in a public place with a TV tuned into it — and just one year after the trial ended it already seems like ancient history since the tabloid-fodder cases have just kept on coming. But I supported the jury verdict and I still do; the prosecution proved Casey Anthony guilty of nothing more than a ham-handed, sloppy and stupid attempt to cover up the accidental death of her baby daughter, and everything else they dredged up — the beauty contests she entered at bars, the “Bella Vita” tattoo she got on her back, even her movie rentals — proved nothing more than that on the Madonna/whore scale women, and especially mothers, continue to be judged by, Casey was far more whore than Madonna. The trial reached its peak of theatre-of-the-absurd cheesiness when Ashton, proud of himself for having been the first prosecutor in the U.S. to win a murder conviction on DNA evidence, offered a supposed “expert” in “air evidence.” This person claimed to have been able to take air samples from the trunk of Casey’s car, where Caylee’s body had rested either after Casey killed her or she died accidentally, and by examining their chemical composition determine how Caylee died and whether her mom had anything to do with it. Ashton probably wanted not only to convict Casey but to do so on this novel form of evidence, adding another “first” to his historical record, but the whole notion of “air evidence” was absurd because it ignored how many times that trunk lid had been opened over the nearly three years between the time Casey Anthony allegedly put Caylee’s body in the trunk and the time this “expert” did his tests — which the judge threw out on the ground that no one else had scientifically validated the procedure (and I’m not holding my breath, pardon the pun!).