My family spent the Fourth of July vacationing in Central Florida, where you didn't have to look up to see the fireworks – they were on everybody's TVs, which were all tuned in to the explosive capital murder trial of Casey Anthony.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been transfixed by the trial of the young mother accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee. Ratings for the cable television news channel HLN have doubled since the trial began May 24. The New York Times ran an article last weekend about how the trial had become a tourist destination, with people from all over the country traveling to see it, standing in line for 12 hours or more, sleeping on the sidewalk, in hopes of getting a ringside courtroom seat.
But nowhere is the interest more intense than Central Florida, where the case's faces and references are oh-so-familiar to the people who work, shop, eat and play in the same places where the toddler spent her short life. Local TV stations in the Orlando area have broadcast the trial live without commercial interruption. The NBC affiliate in Central Florida opted to forgo a longtime tradition and pre-empted coverage of the Wimbledon men's final to keep broadcasting the trial.
Unrelenting, repetitive, unswerving – that's been both the coverage and the conversations we've had as we paddle around our pools, jump waves on the beach, sit on our patios, eating our hot dogs and flag cakes.
Why do we watch?
A rising tide of critics has condemned those glued to their TV screens as being voyeuristic, bloodthirsty, or bored. The public hasn't been this obsessed with a child's murder since Jon Benet Ramsey in 1996, a comparison some detractors say is proof that as a nation we only seem to care about the plight of pretty, little, white girls. Children are abused and murdered by those who are supposed to love them all the time, they complain. Why should this case preoccupy us more than others?
I'm not making excuses for the morbid curiosity. I don't defend the circus-like atmosphere outside the courthouse. I know we Americans can be crass, insensitive, even stupid when it comes to our unhealthy fascinations with TV drama. But I don't think it's as simple as that this time around.
There are a lot of reasons to watch this case…
For one, justice and how it plays out in our courts can be utterly fascinating. And now we have on-the-air commentary to help put it all into context.
While attractiveness or race may unfortunately play a part in some's obsession, there's also the fact that so few child murder cases make it this far, with an accused parent literally fighting for her life before a jury. Of the 12 women who have been executed in the United States since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, only two involved cases of mothers killing their own children.
Then there's all the uncertainty: The contradictory evidence, the flip-flop testimony, the lying, the bizarre theories about duct tape, cranial washes, pet burials and Google chloroform searches.
The lack of definitive, incontrovertible evidence makes this case all the more riveting. I know husbands and wives who can't agree if Caylee Anthony died because her overwhelmed mother made a big mistake or because her diabolical mom wanted to party like a rock star.
Mothers aren't supposed to do this sort of thing. So we watch, above all, to try to understand. And we watch in hope that 12 people can make sense of it all.