Mother cleared of murder in TV trial that gripped America

The most sensational trial of the season in the United States, watched from gavel to gavel in millions of homes across the land, ended in the most sensational manner possible yesterday as a jury of 12 acquitted Casey Anthony of murdering her two-year-old daughter, Caylee, in her Orlando home three years ago.

When clerks of Orange County courthouse announced that jurors had reached a decision after only 10 hours of deliberation, pundits across the cable television galaxy predicted guilty verdicts, including on the charge of first degree murder. As Ms Anthony waited for the verdicts she faced a possible death penalty. She quivered but stayed composed.

Her self-control began to abandon her, however, as one by one not guilty verdicts were read for murder and abuse of a child. She was convicted of lying to the police in the case, which are misdemeanour crimes. Sentencing was set for Thursday and most analysts expect her to be released on time already served.

The verdicts were the stunning culmination of a case that was as compelling as it was depressing and gruesome. Ms Anthony, a young single mother, had been accused of drugging Caylee, stuffing her in the boot of her car and then dumping her in a Florida swamp. The motive: she wanted a life of partying and fun. The evidence available to prosecutors: vivid but entirely circumstantial.

"This case is a perfect example of why the death penalty does not work," Ms Anthony's lead defence lawyer, Jose Baez, told reporters at the courthouse in Orlando.

Another defence lawyer, Cheney Mason, publicly excoriated the cable networks, saying there had been "media assassination for three years, bias and prejudice and incompetent talking heads".

While the case is over – acquittals cannot be appealed – the debate about what role the media and especially some individual pundits played in the case has only just begun. Florida, like nearly every other state, allows cameras in court. The coverage of the trial was heavily sensationalised and relentlessly negative towards the defendant.

The trial was salted with a variety of lurid sub-plots, including claims that the defendant had been molested by her own father, George Anthony, and a revelation that he had attempted suicide after the death of his granddaughter.

He and the defendant's brother, meanwhile, surrendered to DNA tests to rebut claims that one of them had fathered Caylee in an incestuous relationship with the defendant. The tests absolved both men.