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Key hearings to determine course of Casey Anthony's murder trial

By Jean Casarez, In Session
Casey Anthony's lawyers are fighting to keep photos that portray her as a 'party girl' out of the trial.
Casey Anthony's lawyers are fighting to keep photos that portray her as a 'party girl' out of the trial.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Two days of hearings begin in crucial pretrial motions in Casey Anthony case
  • Rulings could determine the course and location of Anthony's murder trial
  • Defense is seeking to block death penalty, move trial and keep 'gossip' testimony out
  • Anthony has pleaded not guilty; her murder trial is set for May 2011

Editor's note: Follow this story on truTV's In Session from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET, on CNN.com LIVE and on HLN's Nancy Grace at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.

(CNN) -- Casey Anthony is back in court this week for crucial hearings that could determine whether she will face the death penalty, where her murder trial will be held next year and what evidence the jury will hear.

Anthony, 24, is accused of killing her daughter, Caylee, who was 2 when she disappeared in June 2008. Caylee's body was found that December in a vacant lot near the Orlando, Florida, home where she lived with her grandparents.

At this week's hearings, Anthony's defense attorneys will try to convince the judge to take the death penalty off the table. The defense team also is trying to keep some evidence it considers "gossip" away from the jury. And, the defense has asked to move the case to an area of Florida where there has been less publicity.

Rulings made on a tall stack of pretrial motions will likely have a significant impact on the trial, which is scheduled to begin on May 9, 2011. They will be decided by a judge who is a newcomer to the case.

Chief Justice Belvin Perry Jr. replaced Circuit Judge Stan Strickland last month when Strickland took himself off the case after the defense claimed he had improper communications with blogger "Marinade Dave."

Miss Anthony cannot get a fair trial by an impartial jury in Orlando ...
--Defense pretrial motion

"Miss Anthony cannot get a fair trial by an impartial jury in Orlando because of extensive, inflammatory, and prejudicial pretrial publicity in this case," the defense argues in court papers seeking a change of venue.

Other trial locations suggested by the defense include Miami's Dade County, Palm Beach County or Broward County. But during his first hearing in the case, Perry said the defense doesn't get to select the trial location.

Under Florida's open records law, prosecutors have released tens of thousands of pages of witness statements, forensic reports and computer and cell phone records gathered by police. Evidence includes dozens of photos of Anthony and her friends partying, text messages, 911 calls, witness statements to police and Anthony's letters and notes to fellow inmates at the Orange County Jail.

Aside from the regular release of documents, prosecutors have not tipped their hand. They do not comment to the media and they have not filed responses to any of the defense motions. But the hearings are expected to shed some light on how the prosecution's case is being built.

Meanwhile, the defense team led by Orlando attorney Jose Baez is fighting hard to keep the "party photos" out of the case, saying they are prejudicial and prove little.

The photos show Anthony at a nightclub and a residence in the Orlando area, dancing and drinking with friends. Automated dates on the images show only two were taken after the date Caylee disappeared.

The media has used multiple photos of Miss Anthony in order to vilify her and portray her as a 'party girl'...
--Defense pretrial motion

Investigators retrieved the photos during a search of Anthony's computer. "The media has used multiple photos of Miss Anthony in order to vilify her and portray her as a 'party girl' whose lifestyle somehow indicates responsibility for her daughter's death," the defense says in its court papers.

In a related motion, the defense asks to exclude from the trial "hearsay evidence, gossip and innuendo." The defense specifically mentions television interviews potential witnesses have given since Anthony was arrested, as well as their sworn statements to law enforcement.

Both, they say, include gossip about Anthony that if allowed would prejudice the jury and violate her right to a fair trial.

The defense also is seeking to keep out of trial the 911 call Anthony's mother, Cindy Anthony, made on July 15, 2008, reporting Caylee missing, calling it "hearsay."

During the call Cindy Anthony screams that her daughter's car smells like a corpse.

Prosecutors usually argue under such circumstances that the law allows the jury to hear an "excited utterance." It is an exception to the hearsay rule, and it is allowed as evidence at trials because the statement can be considered spontaneous and therefore trustworthy.

Cindy Anthony was referring to the family's car. Evidence released so far indicates prosecutors are likely to argue that it was last driven by Casey Anthony and abandoned two weeks after Caylee was last seen alive.

The court has the authority to bar the death penalty where the prosecution exercises its discretion in bad faith.
--Defense pretrial motion
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Several legal motions challenging the death penalty allege that prosecutors are acting in bad faith.

One contends that prosecutors are seeking death against Anthony because she is a woman. The defense argues that focusing on Anthony's lifestyle before she was arrested is gender bias. The defense maintains that Anthony is facing more serious charges and harsher punishment than a man in the same position would receive.

"Women who are accused of violent crimes are tried not only for the facts of the crime, but also for their non-conformity with traditional gender expectations," the defense argues in its court papers.

The defense also alleges that prosecutors had sought the death penalty to bankrupt the defense and prevent Anthony from having the attorney of her choice.

The defense maintains that prosecutors had originally said they would not seek death in this case but reversed that position in March 2009 when they learned that Anthony had $205,000 for her defense.

The bulk of the money came from ABC News for the licensing of photos and videos, Baez testified during a previous hearing.

"The court has the authority to bar the death penalty where the prosecution exercises its discretion in bad faith, for impermissible motives and in order to prevent the defendant from exercising her constitutional rights," the defense argued in court papers.

The two-day hearing begins Monday. The first arguments will focus on non-death penalty issues. Tuesday's hearing will put the death penalty front and center.