Coming to Grips with the Casey Anthony Verdict

I don’t remember exactly how old she was, but as best I can recall she was about ten. I found her just a few hours after she was killed.

It happened more than 25 years ago, but the memory haunts me still. I had been a cop in South Central Los Angeles for a few years and seen many people who had come to a violent end, but I had never seen a murder victim so young and so undeserving of what became of her.

I had been sent on a radio call about a missing child, a fairly common occurrence, and there was nothing to indicate it would turn out any differently than any of the others I had handled: You go to the house, talk to the parents, take a report, and then make a big show of conducting a search while waiting for the child to come running home or turn up at some friend’s or relative’s house. Every cop knows the routine.

So I was one of a handful of officers who went knocking on doors on the street where the girl lived, asking residents if they had seen her and if they would allow us to look in their backyards and garages and any other place on their property where a ten-year-old might hide. It was at the third or fourth house I came to that a man answered the door and told me, no, he hadn’t seen the girl and to go ahead and look around in his backyard. He could have slammed the door in my face, he could have refused to allow the search, but that surely would have focused suspicion on him. He must have hoped I wouldn’t look too hard and just move on to the next house.

And indeed I went perfunctorily through the motions as I went about peering into the crawl spaces under the house and lifting the lids on trash cans, all the while expecting at any moment to be notified the girl had been found. And then I lifted the lid on another trash can --

And there she was.

She was in a fetal position, with her hands under her chin and her knees tucked into her chest. Her blouse had a floral-print pattern and her pants were light blue. And she had no shoes on, a detail that has oddly remained with me all these years. At first she looked to be sleeping, and my initial thought was that she was hiding and merely pretending to be asleep, for who could sleep all curled up in a trash can as she was?

But of course she was not asleep. The man who had answered the door, I would soon learn, had sexually assaulted and killed her before putting her there in the trash can. He at first denied it, as most of them do, but faced with the abundant evidence against him he confessed to detectives and later pleaded guilty to the crime. This being Los Angeles, it’s fair to assume he’s out of prison by now.

That poor little girl in the trash can would be in her mid-30s today, perhaps with children of her own. She came to mind as the Casey Anthony trial drew to its unfortunate conclusion last week. I hadn’t paid much attention to the trial. I’m fascinated by crime but I get enough of it at work, so there’s no need to invite descriptions of it into my living room. But if you watched the news at all in the last few weeks it was impossible to avoid mention of the case, and like most people I always assumed Anthony had killed her daughter Caylee, either deliberately or by accident.

Also like most people, I assumed Anthony would be convicted and perhaps even sentenced to death. I even thought, given that the crime occurred in Florida and not California, where more death-row inmates die of natural causes than by lethal injection, that Anthony might actually be put to death, to my mind a fitting end for anyone, parent or not, who takes the life of a defenseless child.

But instead she’ll soon walk out of jail, convicted of nothing more than lying to the police during their investigation. A wholly unsatisfying outcome and to most observers an unjust one.

When the murderer of that ten-year-old girl was allowed to plead guilty and avoid a death sentence, I was surprised and disappointed. Again, I hadn’t been a cop all that long and was still learning how things worked at the Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles. Why, I asked, with all the evidence against the killer, with even a confession to the crime, didn’t the district attorney’s office take the case to trial and go for a death sentence?