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They were asked to believe the unbelievable-that a mother could murder her 2-year-old daughter simply to make her own life easier. That Casey Anthony "chose to sacrifice her child," as prosecutor Jeff Ashton argued, "to live the life that she wanted." Could the jurors-five men and seven women, some with young children of their own-fathom such madness? Could they see the woman who sat stoically a few feet away in a Florida courthouse for six weeks as, plain and simple, a monster?

In the end they couldn't and, in a stunning conclusion to a dramatic trial, found Casey Anthony not guilty in the death of her daughter Caylee. More than 2½ years after Caylee's skull and partial skeletal remains were found half-buried in the swampy woods near her grandparents' Orlando home-and after six intense weeks of testimony watched by millions on TV-jurors took just 10 hours over two days to reach their verdict on July 5, finding Anthony guilty only of four counts of providing false information to law enforcement. Anthony, who sat stone-faced for most of the trial and nervously bit her fingernails in the moments before the verdict, sobbed and hugged her attorneys while prosecutors sat in stunned silence. Her mother, Cindy Anthony, looked relieved while her father, George, was tight-jawed as they walked out of the courtroom with their lawyers.

Anthony, who has been in custody since October 2008, had to await sentencing on the minor charges. But the reality of what happened was clear: Anthony would soon be free, and the death of little Caylee would, at least for now, go unavenged. "The bottom line is that the state didn't convince the jurors that Caylee Anthony died at the hand of Casey," says noted Orlando defense attorney Richard Hornsby, who closely followed the trial. "The prosecution never explained when or where Caylee died. Emotions can't carry a weak case; we need hard facts."

The verdict concluded one of the most sensational trials since the O.J. Simpson case-a riveting mix of wild theories and dramatic twists centered around an inscrutable defendant. Anthony, her dark hair pulled tightly into a bun, her face far paler and more drawn than in the videotapes of her partying after Caylee went missing, seemed to fascinate the public (a TV camera was trained on her throughout the trial), as well as the jurors, who kept looking over at her during some of the more explosive testimony, trying, perhaps, to decipher her blank expression.

Yet it was not Anthony's burden to provide answers, and indeed she stayed silent, addressing the court only to say it was her decision not to testify. Instead, her defense attorney Jose Baez hammered away at the prosecution's theory that Anthony killed Caylee by knocking her out with chloroform and suffocating her with duct tape, then disposed of the corpse and explained Caylee's absence by saying she was with a fictional nanny. The problem for the prosecution: There was no direct evidence linking Anthony to her daughter's death beyond testimony that the trunk of her car, in which prosecutors claimed she kept Caylee's body for days, smelled of decomposition.

The lack of a witness or of blood or DNA evidence allowed Baez to attack the prosecution's "fantasy forensics" and establish a counter theory: that Caylee drowned accidentally in her grandparents' swimming pool, and that Casey's bizarre behavior afterward-she went dancing and shopping with friends and even got a tattoo that said "Good Life" in Italian on her left shoulder blade-could be explained by her troubled family life, including her claim of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her father, George. Baez offered no evidence of the abuse or the drowning, and George Anthony emotionally denied he ever abused his daughter or had anything to do with Caylee's death. "Casey was the last one that I saw with Caylee," he testified. "One and one adds up to two."

But the jury didn't see it that way. "There were a lot of holes in the prosecution's case," says Hornsby. "Baez's argument rang true: We don't know what happened." There was also the confusing testimony of George Anthony and his wife, Cindy, who seemed to walk a tightrope between implicating their daughter and trying to lessen the impression she was a callous killer. Cindy even testified that it was she, not Casey, who searched the term "chloroform" on the home computer, despite records showing she was at work at the time of the searches. It was apparently enough to establish reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors. "My driving force for the last three years has been to always make sure there was justice for Caylee and Casey," Jose Baez said after the verdict. "Casey did not murder Caylee. It's that simple."

Still, the verdict left many unanswered-and maybe unanswerable-questions. If Caylee accidentally drowned, why was she found with duct tape over her mouth and nose? Why did Anthony let 30 days pass between the time Caylee went missing and the day police were notified? And how could she so blithely dance at a club with friends just days after she lost her only daughter? Outside the courtroom, while hundreds of spectators milled around in shock-and one yelled out, "Baby killer!"-Shirley Beers, 63, a grandmother of six, felt those questions didn't matter. "My true feeling is Caylee died accidentally and Casey should have come forward," she said. "But I do not believe a loving mother, and it was proven that she was, can turn overnight into a murderous monster."

Meanwhile, in the woods where Caylee Marie Anthony's remains were found, mourners who never met the bright-eyed girl left photos, flowers and messages, as if to say: This child once lived, and we remember her. "We don't know any more today about what happened to Caylee than we did the day they found her body," says Hornsby. "And we may never know."

  • Contributors:
  • Michelle Tauber/Orlando.