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Why we’re relitigating the Casey Anthony case now — and why we shouldn’t

Peacock’s new Casey Anthony special dares to ask why we need to rehash every true crime case.

Casey Anthony leaving jail after being acquitted of murdering her daughter Caylee Anthony on July 17, 2011, in Orlando, Florida.
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Aja Romano is a culture reporter for Vox, focusing on criticism and the ethics of culture. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot.

There’s one group you won’t find joining in the newfound social media push to redeem alleged child-killer Casey Anthony after a recent new series profiling her: The true crime fan community.

That’s because despite Casey Anthony being found not guilty in 2011 of allegedly murdering her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, conventional wisdom holds that she almost certainly was involved in Caylee’s disappearance and death. While the case against her unfolded as an avaricious media circus that portrayed Casey as a callous Orlando party girl, the actual evidence against her makes a strong argument that, in Casey Anthony’s case, the media got it right.

Casey Anthony did party while Caylee was missing. For 31 days in 2008, she behaved like any other 22-year-old without a care in the world — without telling a single human being that her daughter had vanished. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Casey Anthony’s guilt is essentially settled fact among true crime fans. Her acquittal — and the truly wild case that led up to it, from petty theft and “hot bod” contests to “Zanny the Nanny” — has become firmly fixed in pop culture as an egregious example of the justice system failing.

At least, it was until Casey’s new attempt to wrest control of the narrative. In Casey Anthony: Where the Truth Lies, a three-part limited series (we’re loath to call it a documentary) released to Peacock on November 29, Casey blames her daughter’s murder on her own father, and attempts to blame her own behavior on a lifetime of trauma and abuse.

As she did at her trial, she accuses her father and brother, George and Lee Anthony, of sexually abusing her, and argues that her related trauma explains her long pattern of lies in connection to her daughter’s disappearance. George Anthony denied those allegations on the witness stand and has continued to do so; no actual evidence of abuse or record of any related report to authorities has been found.

Beyond the familial accusations, however, Casey’s behavior, then and now, makes a compelling argument that not every public scandal needs to be relitigated, nor does every headline-grabbing criminal case need to be perpetually thrust again and again into the public eye. Unfortunately, the death of Caylee Anthony is just one of several high-profile true crime cases that have recently been dragged once again into the spotlight, despite being previously considered resolved.

And while some of those cases scream injustice and beg for renewed attention, others — like this one — seem to be less about truth-seeking and more about finding new ways to profit and exploit the popularity of older true crime cases.

Casey Anthony’s behavior was infamously bizarre

Casey Anthony is a proven liar. Her narrative of her own story is untrustworthy. She was found guilty at trial of providing false information to law enforcement.

Casey had a long pattern of lying, beginning with years of constructing elaborate lies about her progress through high school, and later about her nonexistent job and even her pregnancy with Caylee — a backstory she shares with multiple convicted killers who all eventually murdered members of their family. Rather unusually, however, Casey’s parents, according to her brother Lee’s testimony at her trial, had a history of enabling and playing along with their daughter’s lies rather than holding her to account for them.

By 2008, per contemporaneous media reports as well as court documents, 22-year-old Casey was still living on and off with her parents, George and Cindy, in Orlando, while habitually engaging in petty theft from her family and friends. She sought to convince everyone that she had spent the past several years working as an event coordinator for Universal Studios.

In the days after June 16, 2008, 2-year-old Caylee went missing. For the next 31 days, Casey, who was staying with her boyfriend at the time, told no one about her daughter’s disappearance. Instead, she gave conflicting statements about where she was — sometimes saying she was staying with a friend, other times claiming she was staying with a nanny — and took no action to locate her. In early July, she got a back tattoo reading “bella vita,” or “beautiful life.” Multiple friends would later testify at trial that, during that month, Casey seemed “upbeat,” “normal,” and “happy.”

“Oh, my god, I am such a good liar,” one witness recalled Casey laughing.

During this month, Casey had been refusing to communicate with her parents, and most concerningly refusing to give them a straight answer about where Caylee was. On July 15, 2008, she finally returned home — and on that day, her parents placed a series of 911 calls. The first was an attempt to report the family car Casey had taken and abandoned as missing, hopeful leverage to get her to tell them where Caylee was; the last came after they’d gotten their answer: Casey told her parents that Caylee’s nanny had stolen the little girl and that Casey had been trying unsuccessfully to locate her daughter, on her own, for the past month. Hearing this, a frantic and audibly panicked Cindy Anthony placed the now infamous call to the police.

This call jump-started the investigation into one of the most infamous modern true crime cases — infamous both because of Casey Anthony’s bizarre behavior and because no one knows, still, what happened to Caylee Anthony.

The case of Caylee Anthony began with elaborate, outrageous lies, and then kept going

From the time of her mother’s 911 call until her trial three years later — when her story changed completely — Casey insisted to police and everyone else that Caylee had been abducted.

Casey claimed she knew who had Caylee: A woman named “Zenaida Fernandez-Gonzalez” who’d been Caylee’s nanny for the last two years. She had met “Zanny the Nanny,” she told police, through a co-worker of hers at Universal Studios; Zanny had once been his child's nanny as well. But Casey didn’t work at Universal. Not only that, the male colleague she named hadn’t worked for Universal in six years, had never heard of a nanny named Zanny, and didn’t even have kids.

As for Zanny herself? She didn’t exist. When the police managed to track down a Zenaida Fernandez-Gonzalez on the other side of Orlando, she had no idea who the Anthonys were. But Casey was so committed to this lie that she confidently took investigators to Universal Studios headquarters, got staff to buzz her in, and led them around the office building while she looked for, apparently, a convincing open room that she could try to claim as her office. When she failed to find one, she abruptly gave up in mid-stride, turned around, and confessed to lying about working there. She continued to insist, however, that Zanny the Nanny was real.

What we do know is that Caylee most likely died by homicide. In August 2008, an eagle-eyed meter reader named Roy Kronk spotted and reported what he believed could be human remains in a wooded area; Caylee was finally located and identified there in December 2008. While no cause of death could be determined due to the extent of decomposition, her lower jaw was found with duct tape attached, which led the prosecution to argue at trial that she had likely died by suffocation, with duct tape as the murder weapon.

Meanwhile, Casey, in jail awaiting trial initially on charges of child neglect, later upgraded to first-degree murder, was far more interested in getting her boyfriend’s phone number on a family call than discussing what had happened with her daughter. When her best friend began crying over Caylee, Casey responded with a contemptuous, “Oh, my god.” By contrast, the case was a huge emotional strain on Casey’s family; in January 2009, George Anthony attempted suicide, which would later be used against him by Casey’s defense at her trial.

Even ignoring all of Casey’s confirmed suspicious behavior, the other circumstantial evidence against her was strong. Casey had claimed that her daughter was abducted far from the Anthony home, but Caylee’s body was found with a Winnie-the-Pooh blanket that matched the theme of her room, and she was wrapped in a canvas laundry bag identified as part of a set belonging to the Anthony household. The location of the remains was just a quarter-mile from the house.

The day the police were summoned to investigate Caylee’s disappearance, Cindy Anthony told the 911 operator that the trunk of Casey’s car smelled like it had held a dead body, and cadaver dogs brought to the scene immediately alerted upon the trunk. Forensic analysis found “shockingly high” levels of chloroform in the trunk; someone accessing the Anthony’s computer also did a Google search for “chloroform” and spent time browsing the results. On the last day that Caylee was seen alive, June 16, 2008, someone in the Anthony home did a Google search for “fool-proof suffication” [sic], then appeared to read an article that discussed murder by poison and suffocation by smothering.

Casey Anthony’s trial took place in 2011, and it was a media juggernaut: A reported 40 million viewers worldwide tuned into at least some of the trial coverage as it unfolded, with millions viewing the verdict live. Millions also tuned in to Nancy Grace’s nightly repetition of “Tot Mom!” to scathingly refer to Casey’s case.

At trial, Casey’s defense team dropped the “Zanny the Nanny” story and instead claimed that Caylee had accidentally drowned in the Anthonys’ pool and that George had helped his daughter cover up the death. Her defense attorney, Jose Baez, dropped the bombshell accusation that Casey had been abused by her father, implying that this explained her string of lies and her willingness to protect him.

Again, there was no evidence for this accusation. But Baez also brought in skilled rebuttal arguments, like that of forensic expert Werner Spitz, to undercut the prosecution’s case. Spitz, for example, argued that the autopsy was poorly conducted and that there was reasonable doubt about the manner of death. In the end, the jury agreed; despite most of them feeling as though Casey "did something wrong," they voted to acquit — an outcome that shocked the world and reportedly shocked even the judge. She was, however, found guilty of lying to police.

Following the trial, Casey seemed to carry on living just as she always had; tabloids intermittently reported sightings of her partying, while she grew estranged from her parents, especially her father, and from her brother. “I don’t give a shit about what anyone thinks about me,” she told the Associated Press in a 2017 interview. “I never will. I’m okay with myself; I sleep pretty good at night.”

Casey Anthony is probably still lying — but does the true crime machine care?

In 2022, however, Casey Anthony apparently does care what we think. The new series, which focuses on Casey and her defense, is all about trying to shift the narrative toward a Me Too story of lifelong sexual assault and abuse. Once again, her story has changed: She now blames her estranged father entirely, claiming not only that George Anthony abused her throughout her childhood, but that he also killed Caylee and then intimidated Casey into covering it up.

It’s a hard sell. Reports surfaced last year that Casey Anthony had created a TikTok account and had been posting videos claiming to miss Caylee. It didn’t last long. A year later, however, some TikTok users have embraced the idea of her innocence, including some viewers like Rosie O’Donnell. While they’ve garnered plenty of attention, though, they are firmly in the minority. Reviews of the new series have dripped with disdain and revulsion for the entire project: Here’s the Guardian:

The show doesn’t just make the case for Anthony’s innocence all over again. Parts of it play like a dating show sizzle reel, complete with shots of Anthony garbed in athleisure wear snapping nature photos while out for long walks in the wild — as if we’re not all watching because her kid was found dead in a wood.

Fortunately, anyone wanting to do a deep dive into the still-unsolved murder of Caylee Anthony can find plenty of other, more thorough documentaries out there. Oxygen’s The Case of: Caylee Anthony, which features analysis from famed criminologist Laura Richards and retired FBI profiler Jim Clemente, is a quality pick. If a podcast is more your vibe, I would also recommend the coverage of the ladies of RedHanded, who did a two-part look at the case.

But the issue isn’t that people don’t know anything about Casey Anthony; it’s more the cyclical nature of modern media production. We’re all too familiar with the way Hollywood prefers to invest in reviving old IP and classic franchises rather than banking on something new. Increasingly, it seems, that mentality has found its way into the ever-lucrative true crime genre. After all, you just can’t magically will a huge, eye-popping true crime story into existence, much less manipulate it into becoming a massive phenomenon, like that of the Watts family, Gabby Petito, or the macabre Murdaugh murders. These cases certainly warrant the attention they receive, but they also compel us to return to them, again and again.

Perhaps, in 2022, after hundreds of books, podcasts, movies, and documentaries about Jeffrey Dahmer, you might have expected Netflix’s new docudrama to be just one more version of a tired story. Instead, Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story was a hit for Netflix, swiftly becoming the second-biggest English-language release in Netflix history and rapidly clocking over a billion streaming views worldwide. Production studios know there’s a hunger for this kind of recycled true crime content. And when the original trial drew viewer ratings like Casey Anthony’s did, perhaps that’s all the motivation needed to revisit a case.

But there’s a difference between Anthony’s case and most other recent popular true crime revivals. No one was trying to proclaim innocence for Dahmer or Ted Bundy in their recent revisitations, even if both series did come under fire for being too centered around the killer. Anthony’s acquittal complicates the facts, to be sure, but any series that allows her to tell her own version of events unchallenged is ethically irresponsible at a bare minimum. (The prosecution refused to participate in the series.) What’s more, there’s arguably zero utility served by rehashing Anthony’s case: She was acquitted. There’s no urgent need to get courts to reevaluate her plight. One could argue she deserves a new hearing in the court of public opinion, but if you believe Casey Anthony is innocent, you’ve already validated her.

From one perspective, it’s easy to see why Anthony is attempting to reframe her narrative now, in the waning moments of Me Too. It is, perhaps, the most hospitable cultural climate for her to receive a hearing on her version of events — especially her claims of abuse. Over the last few years, reexamining the lives of women maligned by the media, from Marcia Clark to Britney Spears, has become something of a cultural touchstone, often to positive effect. It’s a trend that has started to see diminishing returns, however — how much more did we learn, for instance, about Pamela Anderson from Pam & Tommy? Placing Anthony in this same frame seems to assume some level of cultural misunderstanding at the time. But even new information about potential abuse doesn’t change the overwhelming likelihood that she played a primary role in what happened to Caylee.

Casey Anthony isn’t the only suspected killer to benefit from this treatment, however. Take convicted double-murderer Scott Peterson. Peterson, like Anthony, also wove an elaborate web of lies around his pregnant wife Laci’s disappearance. Unlike Anthony, however, Scott Peterson was found guilty of killing his wife and their unborn son; while his conviction was up for appeal on a technicality (improper jury selection), there was no assertion of actual innocence by his defense team. In December 2022, that appeal was denied.

Yet the siren call to revisit even cases like Peterson’s, which seem open and shut, has proven hard to resist. A pair of 2016 and 2017 documentaries advocating for Peterson’s innocence led to a growing chorus of supporters. Famous podcasters like the Crime Junkie hosts and more recently justice advocate Rabia Chaudry have asserted his innocence so strongly that they have infuriated many members of the true crime community. This division between true crime fan factions may also reflect something of the exponential growth of the true crime community, which had long been a grassroots movement until Serial exploded on the podcasting scene in 2014. Since then, true crime has ballooned into a modernized media juggernaut, replete with docuseries, podcasts, and even fan conventions. Many of those fans are often criticized for treating true crime as an entertainment playground, much to the alarm of other true crime fans.

The alarm is understandable, given how much we know about misinformation impacting popular opinion. It’s also certainly the case that web sleuths love a good mystery. Often the facts in criminal cases are just vague enough to allow true crime fans to behave the way we increasingly see those in other fandoms behaving as they dig into the media they love: That is, they lose themselves in the details, spin elaborate theories of the situation, and emerge with complex narratives that fit what they want to believe while rejecting a rational view of all the facts. While this is exactly what we’d prefer our justice system to avoid, the public has no obligation to examine the totality of evidence in a case.

That’s why one-sided narratives like the new Casey Anthony series are so concerning: They risk distorting the truth and misguiding the public.

But with the arc of true crime bending toward recycling and rehashing settled cases — and with the public eagerly lapping it up — it seems unlikely there’s anything we can do to prevent serial manipulators like Casey Anthony from taking advantage of the public hunger for more information on old cases.

All we can do, it seems, is respond by repeating the facts — and trust that one day, if only in the court of public opinion, justice will prevail.

Update, December 20, 6 pm ET: This story, originally published on December 13, has been updated to reflect the denial of Scott Peterson’s appeal.