The new Lifetime movie “Prosecuting Casey Anthony” represents a kind of lingering cultural remorse about the justice system, as it once again asks how the mother of a dead 2-year-old was not found guilty of her murder.
Maybe we forget that a murder trial is not an election, or an “American Idol” contest, or an opportunity for TV fans to get their favorite show renewed. Our votes do not count in this sphere, unless we’re on the jury. Big tabloid trials are legal chess games among lawyers that we can watch closely and obsessively but cannot control. It doesn’t matter how much incendiary “news” anchors Nancy Grace and Jane Velez-Mitchell fire up viewers; we are merely viewers.
Since the O.J. Simpson trial in the 1990s, the Internet and social media have delivered an ever-greater promise of democracy and equal voices to more people. And the reality-news TV channels, including the former Court TV (now truTV) and Investigation Discovery, have shown us the guts of scandalous homicide cases and invited us to feel some ownership of the evidence and the facts. But still, nothing has shifted in the backbone of the law since Simpson got off. No matter how loudly we cry, no matter how certain the court of public opinion may feel, no matter what People magazine or the cable talking heads blather on about, we have no say.
The movie, Saturday night at 8, stews in that realization of powerlessness. Fortunately, it doesn’t re-create a version of events in the death of Caylee Anthony, as Lifetime movies about other famous cases — Drew Peterson, Amanda Knox — have done. “Prosecuting Casey Anthony” is not a heated-up re-creation of either the prosecution’s account, which had a narcissistic Casey killing Caylee and dumping her body, or the defense’s account, with Casey lying out of fear of her abusive father, George, after Caylee had drowned in the family pool. It’s a step-by-step grief march through the story of how prosecutor Jeff Ashton, played by Rob Lowe, lost the case, despite the public’s judgment. The movie is based on Ashton’s book, “Imperfect Justice.”
And I suppose it’s the best possible approach to an ugly case that should just be left alone at this point. Despite being interspersed with clips of Grace and Velez-Mitchell foaming at their mouths over the woman Grace called “Tot Mom,” the movie strikes a general tone of calm retrospect as if to say, “It happened, and here’s another look at why.” The script is built with a framing device that has Lowe’s Ashton, after the acquittal, answering an interviewer’s questions about the case, then flashing back to the days of trial. This allows the movie to sift through details of the case without having to create false suspense and without giving Casey (Virginia Welch) screen time outside of the courtroom.
Lowe makes for a bland hero, as he and his equally bland colleague, Elizabeth Mitchell’s Linda Burdick, discover the evidence and present it in court — searches for “chloroform” on the Anthony family computer, for instance, or the smell of human decomposition in Casey’s car. The pair are simply idealists who apparently believe too strongly in common sense. Ashton smirks smugly in court, and he tells his wife about Casey, “When I get done with her, she’s going to be the most hated woman in America,” but he is nonetheless presented as a flopped optimist. In a scene where trial groupies ask Ashton for his autograph, Lowe fails to show us that Ashton, like most people, must have one or two vain bones in his body. His character on “Parks and Recreation,” Chris, is far more complex.
As actors, Lowe and Mitchell are burdened with shamelessly expository dialogue in which they must pretend to talk to each other when they’re actually just explaining the case to viewers. Meanwhile, Oscar Nunez, who plays Oscar on “The Office,” steals the show as impassioned defense attorney Jose Baez. Unlike Lowe, he’s not just drifting in a haze of righteousness.