06/15/2011 at 06:05 PM EDT
During the Casey Anthony murder trial, senior writer Michelle Tauber has been providing exclusive behind-the-scenes impressions and insights from PEOPLE's up-close courtroom seat
"Don't tell me what happens next!" my hairdresser pleaded the other day. "I'm taping the trial and I'm only caught up through Dr. G
At the heart of the Casey Anthony trial, of course, is a profound tragedy: a child found dead, her mother accused of an unspeakable murder. But as the riveting case unspools, "The Trial," as locals simply call it, has also transformed into something unexpected: must-see TV.
Televised live on cable and streamed on the Internet, it can play on the small and smaller screens as a combination reality show and condensed season of CSI
But the view from inside Courtroom 23 at the Orange County Courthouse in downtown Orlando looks different than the view from the couch. Among the things TV watchers don't get to see:
1. The jury:
They're never shown on TV, so it's jarring to see the 12 nameless jurors
in plain view: seven women and five men who sit some 15 feet directly across the room from the cluttered defense table where Casey is seated. Jury on the left; Casey on the right. Taken together they are an inscrutable split screen, 13 minds that the rest of the room is desperately trying to read.
2. The elevator scene:
Anyone desiring to go to Courtroom 23 arrives on the 23rd floor via elevator. (Curiously, the courthouse has no 22nd floor.) That includes star witnesses, attorneys on both sides, spectators and members of the media. (Only Casey is escorted to and from the building separately.) As a result, the scene is often surreal. Cindy Anthony will leave the stand
in tears, only to be stuck waiting in the elevator bank with her husband George and 60 strangers.
3. The light-hearted banter:
While court is in session, the lawyers and judge maintain a rigid, serious demeanor. But when the jury – and especially Casey – are out of sight, things notably loosen up. After the state rested its case
Wednesday morning, Judge Perry called for a 15-minute break, during which prosecutor Linda Drane Burdick and defense attorney Jose Baez – pointed adversaries in court – spent almost the entire time chatting and laughing like old friends.
4. The unexpected accessory:
On TV, the no-nonsense Drane Burdick is all business, sticking to a conservative wardrobe of basic black suits and sturdy black pumps. But she's found at least one subtle way to express a twist of personality: the sassy silver bracelet she always wears on her left ankle.
5. The tension:
Viewed on the small screen, the courtroom drama takes on a soap operatic quality: the sobbing mother, the bitter boyfriend, the weary brother. But in person, the room feels closed, tight and tense – even when the testimony runs toward the mundane.
At times the only sound is the shuffling of papers and the hum of the air-conditioning; the Florida sunshine is blotted out by huge, heavy shades. In person, the stakes, and the tragedy, weigh as heavily as the large cardboard boxes of evidence stacked grimly before the bench. Inside courtroom 23, even the air seems heavy.