Did Casey Anthony Get Away With Murder?

Casey Anthony is found not guilty on July 5. Joe Burbank-Pool / Getty Images

Bella Vita: so read the tattoo inked on 22-year-old Casey Anthony's shoulder to commemorate her "beautiful life" in the summer of 2008. Thirty-one beautiful days of parties, new boyfriends, and "hot body" contests. Thirty-one beautiful days without her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee Marie.

The single mother told her parents, George and Cindy Anthony, that Caylee was with a nanny (whimsically named "Zanny") while Casey worked as an event coordinator at Universal Studios. Then an impound lot called the family to retrieve Casey's car, which had been abandoned on a roadside. The vehicle reeked of rotting flesh—"like there's a dead body in the damn car," as Cindy wailed in a frantic 911 call to Florida police. And thus began the most sensational murder case to grip America since the O. J. Simpson trial, one that came to a shocking culmination last week as the jury delivered its verdict on Casey's innocence or guilt.

The prosecution's case, laid out over six grueling weeks, rested on circumstantial evidence—but the circumstances were damning. After Cindy alerted authorities that Caylee was missing, and after Casey claimed the nanny had abducted the child, the police began to unravel an astounding web of lies. There was no nanny named Zanny. No job at Universal Studios. Casey's car trunk tested positive for chloroform. Experts found searches for "chloroform" and "neck breaking" on the family computer, during a time when Cindy and George had been at work. A decomposing hair—linked by mitochondrial DNA to the female Anthony line—was found in the trunk, alongside maggots and cadaver-eating flies. All the while, Casey continued to promise that Caylee was alive, and that they'd find her come hell or high water.

The high water came in August, when Hurricane Fay ravaged Florida. Hell came four months later: Caylee's bones, torn out of a trash bag and scattered by the deluge in a woodland near Casey's home. Wild animals had gnawed on the baby's remains. Around Caylee's tiny skull, covering her mouth, someone had wrapped a strip of duct tape.

Casey's defense team struggled to introduce doubt into the case: Caylee's body was so decomposed that no physical evidence remained to definitively point to how the child died. Attorney Jose Baez also floated a seemingly outlandish story that Caylee drowned in her grandparents' pool, and that Casey had lied about the death because she had suffered from childhood molestation by her brother and father. But Baez never backed up the abuse claims and Casey refused to testify in her own defense. When the two sides made closing arguments on July 3, Casey's fate seemed sealed. To the majority of spectators—who tuned in to watch the trial in record numbers and who queued up in the wee hours of the morning to pack the courthouse—the young mother was unequivocally guilty.

The jury returned its verdict after a mere 11 hours of deliberation. Spectators clapped for the prosecutors as they entered the courtroom. And then the verdict: Not guilty. Commentators took to the Internet to express their outrage. Newscasters intoned that the "devil [was] dancing." The next day, a juror hinted that the jury suspected Casey was guilty—but in the U.S. legal system, suspicion is not enough. And so Casey Anthony will walk free to continue her life, which may be considerably less beautiful than before.