ORLANDO, Fla. -- All summer, the case against Casey Anthony in an Orlando courtroom had audiences discussing her life as if she were the star of a reality television show.
The narrative became familiar: Hard-partying single mother fails to report her toddler missing for a month, then lies to police about a kidnapping by a non-existent nanny. Then there was the suspiciously foul smell in the trunk of the mother's car before Caylee Anthony's remains were found in a wooded area.
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Inside Courtroom 23, however, the seven women and five men of the jury in the Anthony case had to look beyond the salacious details and decide: Was there enough evidence to prove Casey Anthony killed her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee?
Their answer was no. On Tuesday, the jury acquitted Anthony, 25, of murdering her child in June 2008.
The reason, legal analysts and court watchers said, is that despite the seemingly endless hype surrounding the investigation and trial, the prosecution's case simply didn't hold up. There was no forensic evidence - such as DNA or fingerprints - directly linking Anthony to her daughter's death. In fact, the precise cause of the girl's death was unclear.
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"The prosecution put out a lot of dots, but they couldn't connect them," says Lawrence Kobilinsky, chairman of the Department of Sciences at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Kobilinsky had advised Anthony's attorneys on the forensic case against her but was not involved in the trial.
After a trial of a month and a half, jurors took less than 11 hours to find Anthony not guilty of first-degree murder, aggravated manslaughter and aggravated child abuse.
They convicted her of four misdemeanor counts of lying to police. She could face up to a year in county jail for each count, but because she has been in jail for almost three years, she could be set free. Her sentencing is set for Thursday.
Many in a crowd of about 500 people outside the courthouse reacted with anger after the verdict was read, chanting "Justice for Caylee!" One man yelled, "Baby killer!"
Given the speed with which the jury reached a verdict, many court watchers were expecting Anthony to be convicted of murder, and were stunned by the outcome.
"Hard to believe," was the initial terse Twitter comment from HLN host Nancy Grace, whose relentless focus on the case helped propel it onto the national consciousness.
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Jurors declined to talk to reporters after their decision, but an alternate juror told NBC's Today show Wednesday he thought they came to the right verdict.
"When they explained to us what reasonable doubt was, I definitely had reasonable doubt then," Russell Huekler said.
Huekler also said he didn't think prosecutors provided a motive for why Anthony would kill her daughter.
"Just because Casey was a party girl did not show why she would possibly kill Caylee," he said.
Also on NBC, prosecutor Jeff Ashton said the verdict left him and other prosecutors in shock.
"I think I mouthed the word 'wow' about five times," he said.
What the public saw
The case became a media sensation from the outset, when little Caylee was reported missing three years ago.
Photos of the smiling, brown-haired toddler and home videos of her singing You Are My Sunshine tugged at viewers.
Those viewers also saw Caylee's mother - scantily clad and grinding against other women at dance clubs. Many wondered what kind of mother would party while her daughter was missing.
During the trial, they heard about Anthony getting a tattoo - "bella vita," it said, or "beautiful life" in Italian - after her daughter disappeared.
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Grace, a former prosecutor, made it clear where she stood, deriding the defendant with the nickname "Tot Mom" and highlighting Anthony's partying after Caylee's disappearance.
Anthony's attorney, Cheney Mason, blasted the media after the verdict for its coverage of the case, suggesting that such images were an attempt to define his client in the court of public opinion regardless of the evidence in the case.
"Well, I hope that this is a lesson to those of you having indulged in media assassination for three years - bias, prejudice and incompetent talking heads," Mason said.
"I'm disgusted by some of the lawyers who have done this, and I can tell you that my colleagues from coast to coast and border to border have condemned this whole process of lawyers getting on television and talking about cases that they don't know a damn thing about," he said.
The media focus wasn't as great as it was during some other sensational trials of the past, such as the one that acquitted O.J. Simpson of murder, but cable TV news used the case for what its managers most want to achieve - ratings - said Judy Muller, associate journalism professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communications.
That the jury came to a different verdict from some commentators is unlikely to cause soul-searching among news media outlets that promoted the trial, she said.
"Nobody's going to do any soul searching when you have these ratings," said Muller, a former ABC News correspondent who covered the Simpson trial in Los Angeles.
Celebrated trials are not just a product of today's online and cable TV world of constant news cycles. The Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial in 1935 is one of many trials that became a riviting national spectacle.
But why did this case atttract so much attention, when countless other children disappear or die under mysterious circumstances without becoming widely known?
The decision by cable outlets to focus on the trial is one part of the answer, Muller said. The case also had elements of a soap opera: a young woman whose daughter is dead, photos of her partying lifestyle, suggestions that Casey Anthony was sexually abused by her father and the emotions of Caylee's grandparents, who lost a grandchild and were openly critical of their daughter as she faced charges that could have led to her execution.
"It's got a lot of drama, It's a soap opera," Muller said. "I don't think we should beat up on the public for watching."
Inside Courtroom 23, the drama had a much different tone.
The burden was on prosecutors to prove their theory: that Anthony suffocated her daughter by placing duct tape on her mouth and nose, wrapped her in a Winnie the Pooh blanket and black trash bags, kept the body in the car's trunk until the odor was too strong, and then dumped it in the woods near her house.
Legal analysts say prosecutors could not tie Anthony definitively to Caylee's death. Prosecutors had no DNA, hair samples or other physical evidence that would do so.
They introduced controversial forensic techniques, such as an air-sampling method never before used in a criminal court case.
The researcher who pioneered the technique said the smell of decomposition filled the trunk of Anthony's car. A defense witness countered that the smell could have come from food that had been found rotting in the trunk.
Karin Moore, a law professor at Florida A&M University, said the state's case was circumstantial.
"Did they prove the manner of death? Did they prove the cause of death?" she said. "The state relied a lot on emotion."
She thought jurors might convict Anthony if they shared the disgust for the defendant that was reflected in online comments by the public.
Anthony's attorney, Jose Baez, created reasonable doubt, Moore and other legal analysts said, when he said Caylee drowned accidentially and that her grandfather, Casey's father, helped cover it up and dispose of the body. He also claimed that George Anthony had sexually abused Casey when she was a child. George Anthony denied both accusations.
Moore and other legal analysts said what surprised them was that the jury was able to get beyond the emotion and rely only on the facts of the case.
Prosecutors spent half of their case depicting Anthony as a liar and a bad mother, but that didn't prove she killed her daughter, said Donald Jones, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law.
"The jurors can't look at this case as a soap opera or a reality show," Jones said. "They had to put their emotions aside and look at the evidence. And they saw there wasn't any."