ORLANDO, Fla. — The only thing everyone wanted was the truth: What happened to Caylee Marie?
Three years after the toddler who captivated the world was reported missing from her east Orange County, Fla., home, a jury decided prosecutors failed to prove that Caylee’s young single mother killed her.
“Casey did not murder Caylee; it’s just that simple,” lead defense attorney Jose Baez said outside the courtroom minutes after the verdict was read. “While we are happy for Casey, there are no winners in this case.”
On Tuesday, the 12-member panel rendered verdicts that shocked and outraged many: not guilty of first-degree murder. Not guilty of aggravated child abuse. Not guilty of aggravated manslaughter of a child.
After deliberating for 11 hours over two days, the jurors, who heard from dozens of witnesses and saw hundreds of pieces of evidence throughout Anthony’s 36-day trial, convicted her of four counts of lying to law enforcement, which carry a maximum sentence of one year in prison per count.
Anthony, who has been jailed since October 2008, will be sentenced on those charges Thursday at 9 a.m. EDT.
She could walk out of the courthouse a free woman.
The relief that was evident in Casey Anthony’s expression as the verdicts were read at 2:15 p.m. was a stark contrast to the tension that hung heavy in the silent courtroom in the moments leading up to the announcement.
Her parents, George and Cindy Anthony, sat silently in the back row, where they have sat throughout the trial. Her brother, Lee Anthony, was not in the courtroom.
Inside the courtroom, Casey Anthony and her attorneys held hands as each verdict came in. They remained composed until Orange-Osceola Chief Judge Belvin Perry thanked and dismissed the jury.
At that point, Casey Anthony tightly hugged Baez, and then the rest of her defense team huddled around her, some of them crying, their sobs resonating throughout the expansive courtroom. The team appeared giddy — even Casey Anthony smiled as she was fingerprinted.
George and Cindy Anthony left the courtroom immediately after the verdicts. They didn’t materialize until hours later, when they pulled into their garage on Hopespring Drive in east Orange County around 7:30 p.m. A crowd of a few dozen onlookers snapped photos.
Through their attorney Mark Lippman, George, Cindy and Lee Anthony released a statement that read, in part: “While the family may never know what has happened to Caylee Marie Anthony, they now have closure for this chapter of their life. They will now begin the long process of rebuilding their lives.”
The verdict is a stunning victory for Baez, who was a relatively unknown lawyer from Kissimmee, Fla., until Casey Anthony retained him. Outside the courtroom, Baez spoke briefly and said now is the time for Anthony to “grieve and grow, and somehow get her life back together.”
But before Baez took the microphone, defense attorney Cheney Mason indignantly addressed the crowd of reporters in a packed room on the 23rd floor of the Orange County Courthouse.
“I hope that this is a lesson to those of you that have indulged in media assassination the last three years,” Mason said. “I’m disgusted by some of the lawyers … getting on television and talking about cases they don’t know a damn thing about. … Now you’ve learned your lesson.”
Soon after, State Attorney Lawson Lamar held a news conference with Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings across the street from the courthouse, surrounded by the investigative and trial teams.
“It’s always been about seeking justice for Caylee and speaking on her behalf,” Lamar said.
He praised Assistant State Attorneys Linda Drane Burdick, Jeff Ashton and Frank George, calling them “world-class” prosecutors. Then he acknowledged the Sheriff’s Office, FBI and other law-enforcement agencies for their work on the case.
Still, Orange County’s top prosecutor said his team felt “disappointed with the verdict today and surprised, because we know the facts.”
“Despite what your personal view as to guilt or innocence may be, the criminal justice system has worked. We did our job. The jury did their job,” Lamar said. “This is justice in America.”
Outside the courthouse in the moments leading up to the verdict, crowds swarmed the courthouse doors and sprawling courtyard. Dozens of people crowded into a cafe and overflowed out the doors at the adjacent public defender’s office to watch the proceedings on television.
The cafe was silent as the verdict was read aloud by the court clerk. The crowd screamed and howled as the “not guilty” verdicts were announced. The shocked spectators grew louder with each “not guilty.”
“I just don’t feel justice is served,” said 44-year-old Lynda Nickerson, who drove from Apopka, Fla., to be at the courthouse. “The laws need to be changed if people can get away with murder.”
The public may never know how the jury came to its conclusion.
The panel declined an offer to speak to the media after the verdict. Perry signed an order barring the release of their names, even though in Florida, juror identities are usually released at the conclusion of a trial.
One alternate who spoke to CNN said: “It was a horrific accident that Dad and Casey covered up, and unfortunately it did snowball and got away from them.”
Russell Huekler, also known as juror No. 14, told CNN on Tuesday evening by phone that the prosecution did not prove its case. Because he was an alternate juror, he was not in the deliberations room and was not privy to how the jurors reached their decision.
Huekler, who was one of the final jurors picked in May, told lawyers he was neutral on the death penalty but probably would have voted against it. He was eager to serve on the jury.
“The big question that was not answered (was) how did Caylee die?” Huekler said.
We may never know.