July 3, 2011 at 12:23 PM EST - Updated June 24 at 2:32 PM
By KYLE HIGHTOWER Associated Press
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - The case that played out on national TV beginning with a toddler's disappearance in 2008 and continuing up to her mother's murder trial today reaches a milestone Sunday with the expected start of closing arguments in a Florida courtroom.
After more than 33 days of testimony and 400 pieces of evidence, prosecutors and defense attorneys in the first-degree murder trial of 25-year-old Casey Anthony are to deliver final arguments to jurors in the death of Anthony's 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.
Judge Belvin Perry, who gave attorneys Saturday off to prepare for final arguments, has said deliberations by the jury of seven women and five men could begin as early as Sunday evening.
During opening statements in May, prosecutors contended that Caylee was suffocated with duct tape by a mother who loved to party and shop and who crafted elaborate lies to mislead everyone from investigators to her own parents. Defense attorneys countered that the toddler accidentally drowned in the family swimming pool, and that her seemingly carefree mother in fact was hiding emotional distress caused by sexual abuse from her father.
However, jurors heard that a medical examiner never determined precisely how Caylee died, and Casey Anthony's DNA was not found with her daughter's skeletal remains when they were discovered in December 2008 in a wooded area near the Anthony family home. The defense team never offered firm proof of how the girl died, either, and never offered any evidence that Casey Anthony was molested by her father, George, who has firmly denied the claim.
The trial has been broadcast across the country. Captivated observers have traveled from distant states and camped outside the Orlando courthouse, jockeying for coveted seats in the gallery to witness the unfolding of the court drama.
Casey Anthony has pleaded not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder. She could face a possible death sentence or life in prison if convicted of that charge.
Anthony also is charged with aggravated child abuse, aggravated manslaughter of a child and four counts of providing false information to law enforcement. The child abuse and manslaughter charges each carry a 30-year prison term if convicted.
Prosecutors finished their rebuttal case Friday, after which defense attorney Cheney Mason argued that the judge should grant a request to acquit Anthony. He said in part about the state's case: "If you separate facts from fiction and inferences stacked on top of inferences ... there is no proof."
Indeed, the burden of proof falls to prosecutors. They relied on a highly circumstantial case, focusing on what they called the lies told by Casey Anthony in the 31 days after Caylee was last seen alive. They also heavily focused on an odor in the trunk of Casey Anthony's car, which the prosecution's forensics experts said was consistent with the smell of human decomposition.
No physical evidence ever linked Casey Anthony to traces of chloroform found in the trunk, though, and Perry ruled that the jury would not get to smell air samples taken from that trunk.
Nonetheless, the defense offered no evidence supporting their theory that Caylee drowned. Nor did they offer proof of the molestation allegations, which the attorneys said explained why Casey continued to party and hang out with friends after her daughter disappeared in the summer of 2008.
Absent definitive evidence, Florida A&M professor Karin Moore said jurors might lean on the most glaring thing presented to them.
That could mean judging Casey Anthony's actions during the month Caylee was missing, Moore said.
"If she knew her child had died or was missing, she was not acting like a grieving mother," Moore said. "It may be enough for a jury."
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