ORLANDO — With Geraldo Rivera and Nancy Grace in the courtroom, the Florida murder trial that has fueled a cottage industry of cable television coverage took more tabloid turns on Tuesday, the first day of testimony.
This is an Orlando trial with Pinellas County jurors who must decide if Casey Anthony killed her 2-year-old daughter in the summer of 2008. It's also a captivating drama with its own cult following — a case in which duct tape is the purported murder weapon and jurors may consider whether air samples taken from Anthony's car trunk contain the smell of death.
And like a John Grisham thriller with unending plot twists, defense attorney Jose Baez dropped a series of bombshells in his opening statement that only added to the swarming media interest.
Baez said Casey Anthony did not kill little Caylee — on purpose or otherwise. He said Caylee loved to swim and managed to get into the family swimming pool, where she drowned.
Baez suggested that Anthony's mother, Cindy, forgot to pull up a ladder by the pool, and that Caylee slipped into the water the next day when no one was looking.
The distraught family panicked and didn't call police, he said.
"Casey should have called 911. That's what she's guilty of, she's not guilty of murder. This is not a murder case," Baez said.
Baez didn't say in his opening statement how he believes Caylee's body was disposed of — or by whom.
It took months to find Caylee's body in the woods less than a half-mile from her home. The search for the missing girl catapulted the case onto cable television shows. Baez suggested this long wait was because Caylee's remains were hidden for months by a "morally bankrupt" meter reader who later staged a discovery of the body, hoping to get reward money.
Baez didn't make it clear how he thinks this man obtained the remains originally.
The defense lawyer's opening statements gave the public the first glimpse of how Casey Anthony explains her unusual behavior around the time her daughter vanished.
But Baez wasn't through.
In an effort to explain why Anthony did not reveal the accident to anyone for a full month, Baez said it was a symptom of her past sexual abuse — at the hands of her father, George Anthony.
Baez claimed George Anthony "inappropriately touched her starting at age 8" and that the abuse continued for several years.
As Baez unspooled his tale, George Anthony sat in the courtroom audience listening.
The Orlando Sentinel reported that during a recess, George and Cindy Anthony were seen in an elevator, and "were visibly enraged and shaken by the opening" statements.
Later in the afternoon, George Anthony took the stand as the first witness for the prosecution.
Asked by a prosecutor if he ever abused his daughter, he said "no sir," shaking his head and setting his jaw.
At the defense table, Casey Anthony shook her head and, at times, cried.
After court adjourned, George Anthony's attorney, Mark Lippman, released this statement: "George and Cindy Anthony are shocked and appalled that the defense would resort to lies about them in today's opening statement. Baez's idle speculation today certainly are not facts. The only result achieved by the defense in this statement was to further hurt this grieving family."
Baez also claimed that Casey's brother made advances toward her and was given a paternity test to see if he was Caylee's father. All those secrets eventually led to the cover-up of Caylee's drowning, Baez said.
"You will hear about a family that is dysfunctional," Baez said. "Ugly things. Secret things."
The defense's dramatic, free-wheeling opening contrasted with the methodical opening statement by Assistant State Attorney Linda Drane Burdick, who laid out her case with procedural precision.
For the first time publicly, Burdick explained how prosecutors believe Caylee died. Though an autopsy did not provide conclusive proof of a cause of death, Burdick said Caylee died after three pieces of duct tape were placed over her nose and mouth.
Burdick also said Casey Anthony led a double life. While living with her parents and her daughter, she dressed for work every day at Universal Studios — even though she was really unemployed.
She invented a babysitter who supposedly cared for the child. Her charade was so ingrained that when detectives interviewed her about her missing daughter, she took them into Universal to talk to co-workers. They got all the way into the administration building before she finally admitted lying about her work, Burdick said.
Burdick also said the trunk of Anthony's car contained clues of the girl's death. A sample of a tire cover in the trunk was evaluated by an expert, who found it had "the unmistakable odor of human decomposition," she said. Air samples were taken to preserve the odor.
The same tire cover also had high levels of chloroform, she said. And someone had used the family computer to make several Internet searches for "chloroform," "neck-breaking" and how to make weapons from household chemicals.
Burdick made her case not only with words but with pictures. She showed jurors the last known photo of Caylee, taken by her mother. It was a shot of the little girl grinning wide, a coloring book in front of her.
Then she showed the next known photograph of Caylee — a vivid image of the toddler's skeletal remains, which had been wrapped in a Winnie the Pooh blanket and several plastic bags.
The 12 jurors and five alternates were selected in Pinellas County because of the intense media coverage in Orlando. They will stay in an Orlando hotel for an estimated six to eight weeks while hearing the case.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.