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Experts Predict Prosecution, Defense Strategies for Anthony Trial

Blame it on the nanny. Blame it on the meter reader. Blame Caylee Marie's disappearance and death on someone, anyone other than her mother.

In the nearly three years it took to get here — opening statements in Casey Anthony's trial are scheduled for Tuesday — various defense theories briefly captured our attention and then fizzled.

Now that the guilt phase of her trial is at hand, the legal experts who have watched this case carefully and know it best say she has few defense options remaining.

The prevailing thought is that her defense team will continue to point the finger in another direction — this time at her family and, particularly, Casey's father, George Anthony.

One of the more provocative takes on that approach comes from Mark NeJame, who at different times has represented George and Cindy Anthony and the search group that looked for Caylee's remains nearly three years ago.

NeJame envisions Casey Anthony taking the witness stand and explaining the "accidental death" of her daughter. She then might attribute her lies, her actions and her failure to report the child's death to fear of her father, according to the prominent Orlando attorney.

"They will develop a story in which she maintains that she lied and covered up an accidental death for fear of some sort of physical response from her father, as untruthful as that might be," NeJame said. "To me it's inescapable that that's the direction they're heading in. It's still fraught with land mines, but that's still their best defense."

It's pretty apparent the defense will direct blame at George Anthony, NeJame and others say, by reading the "tea leaves" of this case:

  • Casey Anthony's defense team has tried to have George and Cindy Anthony kept out of the courtroom during the trial, so they don't have to witness their daughter "throwing them under the bus."
  • Her witness list includes individuals who have seen George Anthony angry and hostile.
  • And despite thorough questioning during two weeks of jury selection, her attorneys have opted against asking potential jurors about their knowledge of the earlier defense theories: that the nanny took the baby, or the meter reader who found her had something to do with it.

Suggestions of abuse by George Anthony surfaced earlier in the case, and a recently filed deposition has Casey Anthony's former boyfriend Anthony Lazzaro recalling how the woman spoke of physical abuse by her father.

Even the Anthonys' current lawyer, Mark Lippman, has said the defense appears to be directing blame at her parents while emphatically denying they — and especially George Anthony — had anything to do with Caylee's death.

Casey Anthony, 25, is charged with first-degree murder in the 2008 death of her daughter. If she is found guilty as charged, she could face a death sentence.

Defense attorney Richard Hornsby, who is not representing Casey Anthony, agreed that the defense appears poised to blame the Anthonys' parenting — and George Anthony to a great extent — while pursuing the accidental-death theory.

But he doesn't entirely agree with NeJame. Hornsby doubts defense attorneys José Baez and Cheney Mason would allow Casey Anthony to take the stand. Aside from concerns about coming across as an "uncaring person," Casey Anthony would have bigger problems testifying, Hornsby said.

"[Assistant State Attorney] Jeff Ashton would destroy her on the stand," Hornsby said. "You couldn't prepare Casey Anthony enough for Jeff Ashton."

Casey's car is strong evidence

Something, however, will be needed to blunt the force of the prosecution's case, which observers say centers on Casey Anthony's Pontiac Sunfire.

"The best piece of evidence they have is the car, no doubt about it," Hornsby said. "You can't separate her from the car."

The prosecution has other evidence:

  • Anthony's parents describing the smell of a dead body emanating from the vehicle.
  • A police cadaver dog alerting on the trunk of the car.
  • Air samples and a hair strand suggesting human decomposition occurred inside the trunk.
  • Elevated chloroform levels linked to the trunk.

Despite the wealth of scientific evidence at their disposal, prosecutors must remain focused and flexible enough to deal with any surprises the defense throws at them, NeJame said.

To succeed, they need to hammer away at Casey's drinking, partying, hanging out with her boyfriend and getting a tattoo in the days after Caylee's disappearance, he said. They also need to deal with the possible defense argument that this was the behavior of a young woman in shock, in denial and in a self-medicating state.

"The state should win this, but I'm very concerned if they are overconfident or inflexible as to what the defense will throw at them," NeJame said. The state will need to show that a concerned mother of a child who died accidentally is "not out stealing and drinking … and tattooing."

The biggest challenge for the state, according to WFTV-Channel 9 legal analyst Bill Sheaffer: the idea that a young mother would kill her 2-year-old daughter to relieve herself of baggage so that she could be with her boyfriend and resume a lifestyle of partying and fun.

"Nobody wants to believe that," Sheaffer said.

Accidental-death scenario

The defense, meanwhile, has hinted at an accidental-death scenario. During Orange-Osceola Medical Examiner Jan Garavaglia's deposition, she was asked whether she ever considered a possible pool drowning when determining Caylee's death was a homicide. She dismissed that idea by saying a parent of someone who accidentally drowned would not place the body in a bag and put it in the woods "to rot."

Earlier this year, during a hearing to keep out certain evidence, defense attorney Dorothy Clay Sims suggested a chlorine-soaked bathing suit left in the car might account for the chemicals discovered in the trunk.

Sheaffer knows the case as well as anyone not directly involved in the litigation. He has sat in on all key proceedings and hearings. Though he agrees blame will be directed at George Anthony on many levels, he seriously doubts Casey Anthony will testify.

"In the guilt phase, she just has too much baggage. She has 31 days and as many lies that she would have to answer questions regarding," said Sheaffer, who also doubted her ability to survive cross-examination. "I think if she does take the stand, it's only out of her arrogance and hubris that she thinks she can manipulate and lie her way through this situation."

What may be risky for the defense, however, is promising things during the opening statement that it may not be able to deliver later on. Baez has hinted the opening will quickly explain the defense.

"The defense seems to be ready to commit to a defense in their opening — very dangerous," Sheaffer said. "You start promising the jurors certain things or certain evidence is going to be presented, you've really painted yourself into a corner."

Meanwhile, Sheaffer sees the state's best evidence in Casey Anthony's actions after the child's disappearance, her "myriad of lies, including the phantom baby sitter," and even George and Cindy Anthony's describing the smell of death in her car.

Forensic evidence, Sheaffer said, is "icing on the cake."

There is wisdom in Casey Anthony's charging as well, he noted. If jurors cannot come back with a first-degree-murder conviction, they could return a second-degree-murder conviction, which could carry a life sentence. If they went with aggravated manslaughter and aggravated child abuse, both charges could carry 30-year sentences, he said.

He said if the defense "hit the ball out of the park" and the jury returned one conviction for an aggravated offense, Casey Anthony would still spend the rest of her youth and much of middle age in prison.

Copyright © 2011, Orlando Sentinel
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