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"This Isn't About Casey Anthony Anymore": Political Rhetoric and Caylee's Law

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The 2011 trial of Casey Anthony for the murder of her child, Caylee, dominated media, public, and political attention in the United States. Anthony’s acquittal prompted many lawmakers to rally around “Caylee’s Law,” legislation that criminalizes the failure to report a missing child. This article considers the political rhetoric of Caylee’s Law by qualitatively evaluating statements made by state policymakers across the United States for the 12 months following Anthony’s acquittal. Policymakers’ rhetoric on Caylee’s Law exemplified the tendency to mobilize political action around “triggering events” through claims-making, to justify new penal legislation on the basis of worst case scenarios and public fears, and to demonize the accused in ways that reaffirm social solidarity in the face of heinous crimes. Policymakers used a variety of interconnected techniques to make claims about child protection, to justify the need for Caylee’s Law, and to label and degrade Casey Anthony.
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Criminal Justice Policy Review
2016, Vol. 27(4) 348 –377
© 2014 SAGE Publications
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DOI: 10.1177/0887403414551000
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Article
“This Isn’t About Casey
Anthony Anymore”: Political
Rhetoric and Caylee’s Law
Kelly M. Socia1 and Elizabeth K. Brown2
Abstract
The 2011 trial of Casey Anthony for the murder of her child, Caylee, dominated media,
public, and political attention in the United States. Anthony’s acquittal prompted many
lawmakers to rally around “Caylee’s Law,” legislation that criminalizes the failure to
report a missing child. This article considers the political rhetoric of Caylee’s Law
by qualitatively evaluating statements made by state policymakers across the United
States for the 12 months following Anthony’s acquittal. Policymakers’ rhetoric on
Caylee’s Law exemplified the tendency to mobilize political action around “triggering
events” through claims-making, to justify new penal legislation on the basis of
worst case scenarios and public fears, and to demonize the accused in ways that
reaffirm social solidarity in the face of heinous crimes. Policymakers used a variety of
interconnected techniques to make claims about child protection, to justify the need
for Caylee’s Law, and to label and degrade Casey Anthony.
Keywords
claims-making, community perceptions, public policies, parental responsibility,
political rhetoric
Introduction
On July 5, 2011, at the conclusion of a highly publicized case, Casey Anthony was
acquitted for the abuse and murder of her 2-year-old daughter Caylee in Florida (see
Riparbelli, 2011). An important part of the trial had focused on the extended length of
time it took for Casey to report her daughter missing to police. Through the media
1University of Massachusetts, Lowell, USA
2University of Massachusetts, Boston, USA
Corresponding Author:
Kelly M. Socia, School of Criminology and Justice Studies, University of Massachusetts, HSSB Building,
Rm. 483, 113 Wilder Street, Lowell, MA 01854-3060, USA.
Email: Kelly_Socia@uml.edu
551000CJPXXX10.1177/0887403414551000Criminal Justice Policy ReviewSocia and Brown
research-article2014
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Socia and Brown 349
coverage of the trial, the public learned that Florida law did not require parents or
guardians to inform law enforcement of the disappearance of a child within a given
time period. As such, even though Casey Anthony waited 31 days to report her daugh-
ter missing, prosecutors could not charge her with violating any existing law by wait-
ing so long. Although Anthony was charged and convicted on four counts of providing
false information to authorities, this was not a result of waiting to report her daughter
missing.1
Media coverage about, and the public’s response to, the verdict (and at Casey
Anthony) came swiftly. For example, within hours of the verdict, Oklahoma resident
Michelle Crowder set up a petition on the website Change.org (2012) that called for
the enactment of new state laws (nationwide) related to the case. Crowder’s proposed
law would make it a felony for a parent or guardian to not report a child missing within
24 hr of learning of the disappearance. Crowder named the proposed law “Caylee’s
Law” after the victim in the case (Caylee Anthony). This move echoed the similarly
emotionally laden strategy used to garner support for other child protection laws by
naming them after high-profile child victims (e.g., Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law;
Simon, 2000).
The number of signatures on the petition grew quickly. The petition was posted on
June 6, 2011, just 1 day after the verdict. By the following day, the petition had more
than 100,000 signatures, and after just 4 days, more than 1,000,000 signatures (Change.
org, 2012). As of June 5, 2012, the petition had accumulated 1,308,199 signatures
from individuals across the country. The petition also garnered much media attention
when it was initially posted (e.g., Riparbelli, 2011), likely helping to increase the num-
ber of people who signed it.
A public opinion poll conducted July 2011, just 1 month after the verdict (and the
start of the petition), indicated solid support for Caylee’s Law across the United States.
Specifically, the representative poll found that approximately 7 in 10 Americans sup-
ported enacting state legislation that would “make it a felony for parents or guardians
to wait more than an hour before reporting the death or disappearance of a child to the
proper authorities” (Angus Reid Public Opinion, 2011, p. 6).
Across the country, at least 124 state representatives and senators from 34 states
responded to this public support by calling for or otherwise discussing the enactment
of Caylee’s Law in their states (see Table 1). In the months following the verdict, pro-
posals for Caylee’s Law were introduced in state legislatures around the country
(Associated Press, 2011a). Through press releases, newspaper op-eds, speeches, and
interviews with the media, politicians discussed the need for such a law and their
intentions to propose or support some version of Caylee’s Law in their respective
jurisdictions.
While calls for new legislation following high-profile cases involving children as
victims, and White children especially, are common in contemporary penal policy-
making (Simon, 2007), the Casey Anthony case provides an opportunity to examine
how policymakers promote the need for new legislation in a case involving familial
violence, rather than stranger-perpetrated offenses. That is, familial violence precludes
the common “stranger danger” rhetoric that has been used in the past to promote and
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350 Criminal Justice Policy Review 27(4)
justify legislation such as sex offender registries and residence restrictions (Best,
1990; Corrigan, 2006; Levenson, 2006), and/or to describe perpetrators of abuse
(Kitzinger, 2004). Furthermore, research has found that familial violence is underre-
ported by the news media, particularly in cases of child molestation (Cheit, 2003).
Thus, the rhetoric used by politicians about Caylee’s Law may share some similarities
to the rhetoric used for previous child safety laws, but may also have some unique
traits given the familial relationship between the victim and the offender.
Examining political rhetoric in support of Caylee’s Law can provide insight into
how politicians both develop and appeal to public support for reactive laws by deploy-
ing rhetorical tools to capitalize on high-profile incidents and related constituent emo-
tions. This is important, as the way policymakers present rhetorical arguments can
have an influence on the future of proposed laws and on future public sentiment. For
instance, in an analysis of legislative debate concerning Megan’s Law, Filler (2001)
noted that policymakers’ rhetoric can help encourage support (and influence votes) for
a new policy, can shape the public’s understanding of the event (and the associated
law) being discussed, and, in some cases, can help influence how courts interpret the
new law.
While Filler (2001) focused on the rhetoric of state and congressional legislative
debates, the ubiquity of 24-hour news networks, online media sources, and website
press releases means that policymakers can easily address the public directly shortly
after a tragic event occurs (Jasper, 2001). In doing so, they can begin composing a nar-
rative of both the event and proposed policy even before the legislature considers and
debates the law.2 This study considers how policymakers use rhetoric to discuss policy
when addressing the public via the media. This is important because these early-stage
processes may, in turn, influence the proposal and passage of laws, as well as help
influence later public opinion of, and support for, policymakers’ political ambitions
(Beckett, 1999; E. K. Brown, 2011; Gamson, Croteau, Hoynes, & Sasson, 1992;
Garland, 2001).
This study examines how state policymakers used political rhetoric and engaged in
labeling and claims-making to justify Caylee’s Law proposals. For the purposes of this
study, a state policymaker is considered an elected delegate, representative, or senator
Table 1. Policymaker Characteristics.
Political party
Position Republican Democrat Independent Total
State
representatives
and delegates
44 (35.2%) 32 (25.6%) 0 (0.0%) 76 (60.8%)
State senators 32 (25.6%) 16 (12.8%) 1 (0.1%) 49 (39.2%)
Total 76 (60.8%) 48 (38.4%) 1 (0.1%) 125 (100%)
Note. One Republican U.S. Representative, Rep. Sean Duffy (WI), is not included in this table but is
included in the analysis of rhetoric.
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Socia and Brown 351
currently serving in a state legislature. This study uses a qualitative contextual analysis
to examine press releases, op-eds, and media-reported quotes by state-level policy-
makers in the year following the Casey Anthony verdict. Understanding how politi-
cians built the argument for Caylee’s Law can help inform on the ways that politicians
can react to high-profile child victim cases, as well as how they can “sell” the public
on laws that focus on exceptionally rare circumstances.
The analysis focuses on the ways in which a “triggering event” (McGarrell &
Castellano, 1991), such as the death of Caylee Anthony and the failed prosecution of
her mother, is discussed by political leaders.3 The analysis examines themes within
policymaker rhetoric that emerged inductively from a data set of public statements on
both the case and on Caylee’s Law proposals.
It should be noted that the focus of this analysis is on the content of political rheto-
ric of policymakers, rather than on the dynamics of public opinion or media coverage
on the case. While news media certainly are active in constructing representations of
order (and disorder; Ericson, Baranek, & Chan, 1991), and in this case selecting which
policymaker quotes are highlighted in newspaper articles, the ability of policymakers
to write unedited op-eds and post press releases, and the inclusion of these in this
study’s data, is expected to help counteract at least some of the potential media cover-
age bias.4 Still, the influence of the media’s secondary claims-making (Best, 1990) is
likely to bias coverage (and thus the current study’s data) toward more dramatic
quotes.
Triggering Events and Political Rhetoric on Crime
Control
In the politicized arena of U.S. crime control policymaking over the last 50 years, it
has become common for political leaders to seize upon high-profile tragedies and
propose new criminal legislation in response to cases covered extensively by news
media (Green, 2008; Simon, 2007). Political platforms have been built on singular but
highly symbolic and emotionally charged “triggering events,” such as the death of Len
Bias in the 1980s as a result of a drug overdose (McGarrell & Castellano, 1991). These
incidents often become mechanisms for identifying crime control problems and for
justifying proposed solutions (Caplow & Simon, 1999; Stone, 2001). Rhetoric and
discourse among political leaders, shared with the public via the media in the form of
“causal stories,” socially and politically constructs problems such as drug use and
abuse, violence, sex offenders, and child abuse (Best, 2009; Loseke, 2003; Stone,
1989; Sutherland, 1950). Indeed, claims-making about crime and the need for new
laws very often focuses on just such “atrocity tales” (Best, 1987, p. 114). In this cur-
rent instance, the atrocity includes the death of Caylee Anthony, the failure of her
mother to report her disappearance, and the State’s ineffective prosecution of the case.
Triggering events interact with media coverage, public fear, advocacy efforts, and
agendas in ways that are complicated and often difficult to disentangle (Roberts,
Stalans, Indermaur, & Hough, 2002). As Garland and others have pointed out, the
“culture of control” that dominated crime control policymaking in the latter half of the
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352 Criminal Justice Policy Review 27(4)
20th century and into the 21st is marked by a preoccupation with risk, fear of crime,
intense (often racialized) social anxieties, and a tendency to idealize crime victims
(Garland, 2001; Simon, 2007; Tonry, 2007).
The trend of naming laws after particular victims, and in response to particular
circumstances, emerged out of a social control policy landscape featuring intensive
and emotion-laden media attention to crime, politicization by elected officials, and the
increasing prominence of single-issue advocacy groups (particularly at the state and
national levels; Beckett, 1999; L. L. Miller, 2008; Tonry, 2004). Calls for Caylee’s
Law followed similar legislative reactions for victims such as Adam Walsh (Adam
Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act), Amber Hagerman (Amber Alert), Jacob
Wetterling (Jacob Wetterling Act), Jessica Lunsford (Jessica’s Law), and Megan
Kanka (Megan’s Law). In each of these cases, naming legislation after particular vic-
tims personalized the crime, added emotional gravity to policy discussions, and cre-
ated compelling media and political narratives.5
A few prior studies have examined how legislators use rhetoric in proposing crime
control policies, and child safety laws in particular (e.g., Filler, 2001; Griffin & Miller,
2008; Marion & Oliver, 2012). Perhaps the most detailed analysis was Filler’s (2001)
examination of Congressional and New York State legislative debates over Megan’s
Law. In that study, Filler noted that policymakers can use debates to help influence
voting decisions, as an education tool for the public and as a way to help courts inter-
pret the law. The Megan’s Law debate included three common themes: (a) the need for
the law, (b) the benefits of the law, and (c) potential problems with the law (Filler,
2001).
Filler’s (2001) analysis found that when policymakers discussed the need for
Megan’s Law, they used three rhetorical tools. First, they frequently used anecdotal
narratives involving high-profile stories of child victims to present the law in terms of
a particularly horrific case. They recalled the stories of other child victims, including
well-known national stories such as Amber Hagerman, and locally known cases
involving children from the policymaker’s jurisdiction. Some policymakers recalled
memories of “safer times” as a comparison to today’s more dangerous world (and,
thus, as a way to show that new policies are needed; Filler, 2001).
Second, they used (sometimes dubious) statistical claims to establish that child
abuse was a widespread problem that needed a policy intervention (Filler, 2001). This
process of using numbers and statistics to justify policy proposals is a central feature
of claims-making (Best, 1990; Stone, 2001). Finally, policymakers used rhetoric to
label and devalue sex offenders, referring to them as “monsters,” “predators,” “ani-
mals,” and “beasts” (Filler, 2001; Garfinkel, 1956). As a result, sex offenders were
made out to be different from (and a danger to) the rest of the public, a process par-
tially reflective of a status degradation ceremony (Garfinkel, 1956). Conversely, some
policymakers used personal testimony as a way to connect themselves with the story
of Megan Kanka, and to make it clear that they shared the same values as voters. All
of these tactics helped establish why Megan’s Law was needed.
In discussing the law’s potential benefits, policymakers focused on two issues:
increased child safety and giving meaning to Megan Kanka’s life (Filler, 2001).
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Socia and Brown 353
Regarding child safety, policymakers referenced Megan’s murder and suggested that
had the bill been in place, Megan Kanka may have been saved. Some policymakers
also suggested that other victims may still be alive were the law in place. Policymakers
made it clear that the law would help protect children by deterring offenders, and
would “enhance police detection of child offenders, and empower parents and neigh-
borhoods to protect children” (Filler, 2001, p. 342). Relatedly, policymakers promoted
the idea that Megan’s Law would give meaning to Megan Kanka’s life (and death).
This rhetoric helped clearly link the legislation with the sympathetic victim, and show
that policymakers’ efforts were directly related to the original crime (Filler, 2001).
The potential problems with the law were also discussed, although infrequently.
Although this discussion came mainly from a single policymaker, the major issues
involved infringing on the rights of sex offenders, the potential for vigilantism against
sex offenders, infringing on state’s rights (as discussed by Federal lawmakers), and
suggestions that the law would not apply to most cases. Rather than addressing these
issues, Filler (2001) found that “the bill’s backers, for the most part, sidestepped these
concerns” (p. 346).
The Present Study
The findings of Filler (2001) provide a good starting point for examining the rhetoric
surrounding Caylee’s Law. That is, the common themes and similarities in prior child
safety laws provide a basis for investigating the rhetoric involving Caylee’s Law.6
However, this study is also interested in examining the differences in policymaker
rhetoric, due to the uniqueness of the Casey Anthony case.7 The next section describes
the methodology used in the current study, and is then followed by a presentation of
the findings of the analysis. The “Discussion” section will tie the findings of the pres-
ent study back to the prior findings concerning other child safety policies, as well as
the integrative conflict perspective, claims-making, and labeling theory. The
“Conclusion” section considers implications of the current findings.
Method
As noted earlier, this study examines rhetoric used by policymakers in discussing
Caylee’s Law with the public. Data for this study were collected from LexisNexis
archives, Google News archives, and “regular” Google searches using the search
terms “Caylee’s Law” and “Caylee Anthony.” These searches were run a week after
the Anthony trial verdict, and again approximately 1 year after the verdict. The search
procedures included examining any and all news articles in local or national newspa-
pers, policymaker press releases, and op-eds (when written by a state policymaker)
that were available in an electronic form. All articles, press releases, and op-eds uncov-
ered in the search process that were electronically published between July 5, 2011, and
July 5, 2012, and included direct quotes from state policymakers regarding Caylee’s
Law were included in the initial data set. When identical news stories were published
through multiple sources (e.g., an Associated Press article published in multiple local
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354 Criminal Justice Policy Review 27(4)
newspapers), a single version of the story (and associated quotes) was kept. This
search and sorting process resulted in more than 120 unique media accounts, press
releases, and op-eds that met the criteria for inclusion in the data set.8
From the initial search documents, quotes were extracted into a database that iden-
tified both what was said and what policymaker said it. For the purposes of this study,
quotes were considered to be any words located between quotation marks that were
attributed to a specific policymaker either in a news article or a press release. For op-
eds written in the first person by an identified policymaker, the full text of the op-ed
was considered to be a quote. When multiple sources used the same quote, or used
various pieces of a larger quote, these were combined into one instance of the most
complete quote for that policymaker. Quotes were then aggregated by policymaker
(keeping source information) prior to coding.
The Data
As noted earlier, and in Table 1, the final data set included quotes from 125 unique
State Delegates, Representatives, and Senators from 34 states.9 Of these, 76 were State
Delegates or Representatives, and 49 were State Senators. There were 76 Republicans,
48 Democrats, and 1 Independent. In addition, 1 U.S. Republican Congressional
Representative wrote an op-ed about Caylee’s Law, and as this op-ed was (publicly)
urging the policy actions of Wisconsin State Senators, it was included in the sample as
well (for a final total of 126 policymakers). There was an average of about 115 words
of quotes per policymaker in the final data set, ranging from just 4 words (“Certainly
it makes sense.”) to 786 words.
Coding Approach
Data were coded using a general inductive approach (Thomas, 2006) rooted in a
grounded theory perspective (Strauss, 1987). Grounded theory is an approach that
stresses inductive development of ideas directly from the data, with the goal of inform-
ing theory and developing new perspectives (Strauss, 1987). One of the key features
of grounded theory is that it is an interactive process, whereby theory is developed and
refined at the same time the data are being analyzed (Strauss & Corbin, 1998).
In this coding process, themes and codes emerge from the data directly, and do not
necessarily reflect any specific a priori expectations. However, part of using grounded
theory involves familiarization with the topic and the data, which can result in “sensi-
tizing concepts” that “provide directions along which to look” (Blumer, 1954, p. 7). In
this instance, some of these sensitizing concepts stem from the prior literature on how
rhetoric is employed by policymakers discussing public safety legislation (e.g., Best,
1990; Filler, 2001; Griffin & Miller, 2008; Marion & Oliver, 2013), as well as from
familiarization with the actual data during the coding process. These sensitizing con-
cepts form the conceptual framework for the study (see G. A. Bowen, 2006), and
include justifying the need for the law, explaining the benefits of the law, and the
potential problems with the law.10 Alternatively, one important part of using grounded
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Socia and Brown 355
theory involves actively searching for cases that do not meet the conceptual frame-
work (Charmaz, 2006; Glaser & Strauss, 2009). In this case, this meant searching the
data for themes that departed from the concepts advanced by prior researchers such as
Filler (2001).
The coding process involved the first author “open coding” the entire data set to
inductively identify themes within policymaker rhetoric. The second author indepen-
dently reviewed a random sampling of 50% of the data for thematic content . This
review provided a check on the interpretations of the first author. Unlike structured
coding, in which intercoder reliability figures are produced after two or more research-
ers code data using a formal codebook, the interpretive and thematic nature of open
coding means that quantitative reliability estimates are not meaningful. Despite this,
care was taken to use two researchers to identify and critically evaluate the themes
presented.
The actual coding process utilized NVivo 10. NVivo is a qualitative data program
that allows for the creation of concept labels (“nodes” or “parent nodes”) and nested
sub-concepts (“child nodes”), with textual excerpts placed into those nodes (Dum &
Fader, 2013; Fader & Dum, 2013). As noted earlier, the coding was influenced, in part,
by the sensitizing concepts from the existing literature, and also involved coding for
other emerging themes. This process resulted in broad categories of codes (e.g.,
“need,” “support,” “action”) being applied to selections of text. The exact names of
these codes were decided upon by the coder. These broad categories of codes, and the
associated text, were then examined in more detail to identify more specific sub-codes
(e.g., “priority,” “agreement,” “punishment”).
The coding process initially resulted in a total of 18 category codes (“parent nodes”)
and 157 sub-categories (“child nodes”), excluding another 125 nodes that identified
the specific policymaker(s) the quote was attributed to. A list of the parent and child
nodes is available upon request. From these codes, multiple themes were identified.
Findings
Four central themes emerged from the inductive analysis of elected officials’ discus-
sions on Caylee’s Law. These themes involve (a) supporting the need for the law, (b)
the benefits of the law, (c) the potential problems with the law, and (d) the labeling of
individuals or actions. Taken together, these four central themes are in line with the
themes identified by Filler (2001). Each of these themes is discussed in more detail
below.
The first theme considers the way that policymakers justify the need for Caylee’s
Law. Policymakers told anecdotal narratives, cited input from their constituents and
statistics related to child safety, used words that implied a need to act quickly to pro-
mote child safety, or otherwise justified the reasons for supporting and passing
Caylee’s Law. The second theme involves the potential benefits of Caylee’s Law.
Policymakers used language that implied the law would increase child safety, perhaps
by deterring potential offenders or because of an increased response by law enforce-
ment officials. They also implied that the law would increase the punishment given to
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356 Criminal Justice Policy Review 27(4)
those who commit undesirable acts, and would send a message to these individuals
about some of the basic beliefs of the community.
The third theme involves acknowledging or addressing the potential problems with
Caylee’s Law. Although not very prevalent, some policymakers did address this issue
in passing. They pointed out the potential problems of the law, allayed concerns with
the law’s implementation or impacts, or indicated that the law would be carefully con-
sidered and crafted in such a way as to minimize potential problems. The fourth theme
considers rhetoric that labels a person or group in a way that both distinguishes them
from the rest of society and implies the need for special regulations pertaining to their
behavior. In their rhetoric on Caylee’s Law, policymakers appear to have sought to
label certain actions in a way that defined them as deviant or, alternatively, that labeled
certain actions as normal and acceptable behavior.
Need
As Best (1987) has noted, it is critical for claims-makers to effectively construct “war-
rants” or statements that justify the need for a particular law or proposal (p. 108).
Policymaker rhetoric on the need for Caylee’s Law involved a number of different
characteristics. In justifying the law, 15 policymakers cited contact from their constitu-
ents as a driving force. In particular, policymakers referenced public concern that
came from members of the public not affiliated with advocacy efforts. This tendency
to reference unsolicited public input, especially input from local constituents not con-
nected with formal advocacy campaigns, is a way for policymakers to appear respon-
sive to real public opinion while justifying their actions (E. K. Brown, 2011; Herbst,
1998).
To get 186 unsolicited emails and most of them are people that have not contacted the
office before, shows how much this issue has really touched a nerve with people . . . Our
job is at the end of the day to represent our constituents and at the maximum they want us
to take a look at this. (Rep. DePasquale, D-PA) (Arbogast, 2011)
I have received about 400 emails on “Caylee’s Law” and they are all from my district. So
it’s almost unprecedented. (Sen. Howell, R-VA) (WVIR, 2011)
It’s rare for us to get this many contacts. It really resonates, especially when so many
come from the district. (Sen. Flexer, D-CT) (Smith, 2011)
Beyond political responsiveness to public concern, the most direct way policymak-
ers expressed the need for Caylee’s Law was by alluding to the weakness of existing
laws. For example, eight policymakers noted that although they respected the decision
of the judge and jury, they disagreed with the outcome of the trial, due in part to the
inadequate state of existing laws. Unsurprisingly, half were from Florida, the site of
the Casey Anthony trial, and, thus, they were discussing the deficiencies with their
own state’s laws.
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Socia and Brown 357
While the process that produced the verdict must be respected, the deficiencies in our
laws that have become apparent from this case should not be. It’ll never be justice for
Caylee, but it’s a much-needed adjustment to our laws. (Rep. Diaz, R-FL) (“Anthony
Verdict Sparks ‘Caylee’s Law’ Proposal in Florida,” 2011)
While I respect the judicial process and the burden of proof that exists in such cases, I join
my fellow Floridians in voicing concern about any inconsistencies or inadequacies in the
law that could potentially lead to future issues such as this. (Sen. Evers, R-FL) (Kennedy,
2011)
It’s not our job to agree or disagree with a particular jury. We should respect the work of
all our juries who do the best they can with the facts that they have. (Sen. Negron, R-FL)
(Kaczor, 2012)
This rhetoric allowed policymakers to express their displeasure with the individual
verdict, while expressing their faith in and support for the criminal justice system. It
also served to redirect attention away from any flaws in the trial process, avoid criti-
cizing the actions of specific court actors (e.g., prosecution, judge, jury), and instead
focus attention on the need to modify the laws that are used by the system. This mes-
sage was effectively a warrant that existing policies were inadequate and in need of
fixing (see Best, 1987).
Best (1987) also noted that one rhetorical technique in claims-making involves
discussing the moment the problem is discovered (see also Pfohl, 1977). Indeed, at
least 15 policymakers suggested that the Casey Anthony trial was directly responsible
for uncovering a weakness in the existing laws.
The Casey Anthony trial exposed a weakness in the law. We’re going to close it. (Sen.
Taylor, R-AL) (Loftin, 2011)
The case of Caylee Anthony . . . has uncovered inconsistencies and inadequacies in our
law that allow negligent parents to go without answering for their actions. (Sen.
Greenstein, D-NJ) (Roderer, 2011)
The Casey Anthony trial has shined a bright light on the gap in many states’ laws,
including Tennessee’s, regarding the reporting of a missing child. (Sen. Ketron, R-TN)
(Stockard, 2011)
By describing the lack of a mandatory reporting period as a weakness, it signaled
that this was something that needed to be fixed about the law, and therefore helped
policymakers justify their proposing of such changes. Indeed, four policymakers
implied that there was a legal “loophole” that specifically needed fixing.
The fact that this is not already a law on the books in Massachusetts is an oversight, and
[the law] will close that loophole. (Rep. Linksky, D-MA) (“State House Hearing on
‘Caylee’s Law’ Set for Wednesday,” 2011)
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358 Criminal Justice Policy Review 27(4)
Caylee’s Law remedies what was an apparent loophole in the law that could be exploited
by a small number of individuals who carelessly put the well-being of children at risk.
(Sen. Allen, R-NJ) (Bauer, 2012)
The case also exposed a statutory loophole in laws relating to the reporting of missing
children. (Sen. Shortey, R-OK) (“Oklahoma Senate Approves Caylee’s Law,” 2012)
Related to this discovery/identification of weakness was the theme of needing to
strengthen the existing laws through the passage of Caylee’s Law. Twenty policymak-
ers directly identified strengthening laws, tightening laws, or making existing laws
tougher as goals of passing Caylee’s Law.
The tragic case of Caylee Anthony in Florida has highlighted the need to strengthen our
child protection laws. (Rep. Simmons, R-PA) (“Simmons, Toohil Propose Tougher
Penalties for Child Protection Laws,” 2011)
The tragic deaths of Leiby Kletzky and Caylee Anthony illustrate the need to strengthen
our laws to protect children. (Sen. Lanza, R-NY) (“Senate Introduces ‘Protect Our
Children’ Act,” 2011)11
As Tennessee lawmakers, we cannot do anything to change the outcome of the Casey
Anthony trial in Florida, but we can and should strengthen our laws here in Tennessee.
(Sen. Stewart, D-TN) (WKRN.com, 2011)
This argument is essentially a revised form of the weakness rhetoric. That is,
focusing on the need to strengthen existing laws inherently suggests that existing
laws are somehow deficient, and this deficiency can be fixed through the enactment
of Caylee’s Law. Indeed, if a law is weak, the obvious fix would be to make it
stronger.
Policymakers also noted that the law was needed to help ensure speedy reporting to
law enforcement to save children’s lives. This view may seem surprising, as faster
reporting would not have saved the life of Caylee Anthony. Still, at least 41 policy-
makers referenced the critical need for speedy reporting of missing children, particu-
larly during the first few initial hours following the disappearance.
When a child disappears, the first several hours are the most critical in ensuring they will
be found alive. (Sen. Nozzolio, R-NY) (Daniels, 2011)
When a child goes missing or, in the worst-case scenario, a child dies, the early hours are
critical to law enforcement. (Rep. Cook, R-CA) (“Assemblyman Cook to Lead Bipartisan
‘Caylee’s Law’ Effort,” 2011)
Making it a crime to not report a child missing within 24 hours gives that child a better
chance at being found, or at the very least, the chance to get justice. (Rep. McKeon,
D-NJ) (Fabrikant, 2012)
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This image of the initial hours being critical to victim safety and/or crime solving is
also in line with prior research on the rhetoric about the missing child problem (Best,
1987), and with the messages given by state and local police agencies (e.g., Carteret
County Sheriff’s Office, 2012; Rocky Mount Police Department, 2012; Washington State
Patrol, 2012), national-level government agencies (e.g., National Center for Missing and
Exploited Children, 2012; Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2010),
and even popular television shows (e.g., “The First 48,” “48 Hours Mystery”).12
This message that the law is needed to ensure faster reporting, which will help save
children’s lives, is represented as simple common sense. Indeed, two policymakers
specifically described the need for speedy reporting as a well-known fact in their
rhetoric.
It is a well-established fact that when dealing with a missing child case every moment of
delay weighs negatively in the life or death outcome. (Sen. Lanza, R-NY) (Seiler, 2011)
It is a well-known fact that authorities have the greatest chances of locating a missing
child within the first 24 hours of disappearance. (Rep. Morrell, R-CA) (N. Miller, 2011)
The implication from these policymakers was that Caylee’s Law would help ensure
the speedy reporting of missing children and save lives. By making this out to be a
“fact,” or otherwise a common sense issue, these statements are much harder to ques-
tion. This also represents both the need for the law, as well as a potential benefit.
Benefits
As shown above, discussions on the need for Caylee’s Law were intimately tied into
discussing the potential benefits of the law. Sometimes these discussions took the form
of metaphors for what the law would provide. Having claimed a need for action, politi-
cal leaders also justified Caylee’s Law according to its utility in solving the problem at
hand. For instance, at least 10 policymakers described Caylee’s Law as a potential
“weapon” or “tool” for law enforcement and prosecutors.
It provides another arrow in the quiver of prosecutors. (Rep. Hagar, R-FL) (Axelbank,
2011)
It gives prosecutors another tool in their arsenal. (Rep. Henderson, D-KY) (Mayse, 2011)
It’s another tool for prosecutors, it’s another tool for police. (Rep. Linsky, D-MA)
(MyFoxBoston, 2011)
Using the terminology of weapons and tools suggests that policymakers are providing
the justice system with something tangible that will help to effectively fight crime and/or
fix problems. Indeed, Rep. Mitchell (D-CA) explicitly described the passage of the bill as
“answering the call to get new tools in the hands of law enforcement” (Andrews, 2011),
thus implying that the law was being actively requested by law enforcement.
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Policymakers also used rhetoric implying that Caylee’s Law would help to hold
offenders accountable for their actions. At least 12 policymakers described holding
parents and/or guardians accountable as a direct benefit of the law.
This bill is a reasonable and enforceable way to protect young children and hold
accountable those parents and adults who fail to live up to their responsibilities. (Rep.
Ugenti, R-AZ) (“Caylee’s Law Introduced in State House,” 2011)
The point of the bill is to hold parents accountable when they know their child is missing
and in harm’s way. (Rep. Mitchell, D-CA) (“Caylee’s Law Gains Bipartisan Support,
Passes Assembly Floor,” 2012)
With this proposal, we are protecting children and holding irresponsible parents and
guardians accountable for not promptly reporting disappearances. (Sen. Kissel, R-CT)
(“Sen. Kissel: CT Version of Caylee’s Law Passes Legislature,” 2012)
Related to accountability, policymakers also noted that a benefit of Caylee’s Law
was that it could help punish offenders. At least 21 policymakers either directly or
indirectly mentioned this idea in their rhetoric.
[Parents and guardians] have a responsibility to protect their children. This [law] will
ensure it’s a punishable crime. (Rep. Caputo, D-NJ) (Grant, 2011)
With this measure, we have carefully crafted a comprehensive bill that would fix the
shortcomings of state law to ensure that children are protected and perpetrators are
appropriately punished. (Sen. Skelos, R-NY) (“Senate Introduces ‘Protect Our Children’
Act,” 2011)
Under this law, parents or guardians who lie to the police about the disappearance of a
child will face real penalties. (Sen. Shortey R-OK) (“Oklahoma Senate Approves
Caylee’s Law,” 2012)
Discussing the law as a way to hold individuals accountable and punish offenders
helps tap the negative emotions the public felt about Casey Anthony “getting away”
with a crime. Thus, although the sentiment may have originally been directed at Casey
Anthony, policymakers discussed Caylee’s Law as a way to help punish future offend-
ers who were like Casey Anthony.
God forbid we ever run into a mother like Casey Anthony again. If we do, that mother
will be a felon. (Rep. Plakon, R-FL) (Kallestad, 2011)
Our laws shouldn’t allow bad actors like Casey Anthony to wait over a month to report a
missing child. This bill will go after people like her but won’t incriminate well-meaning
or distraught parents. (Rep. Cook, R-CA) (“Assemblyman Cook to Lead Bipartisan
‘Caylee’s Law’ Effort,” 2011)
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This is a perfect example, in my opinion, where the mother got away with murder . . . And
if we had a statute in place that would have allowed the state attorneys to charge her with
that crime . . . she would have been found guilty on that charge and would be serving a
period of time in jail. (Sen. Fasano, R-FL) (Kam, 2011)
Indeed, one policymaker specifically redirected the focus away from Casey
Anthony and instead onto holding offenders accountable with the law, while also men-
tioning the idea of helping to protect children.
This isn’t about Casey Anthony anymore. It’s about making sure the law protects innocent
children in Alabama and holds the adults charged with their care accountable for
despicable, criminal conduct. (Sen. Taylor, R-AL) (Loftin, 2011)
As implied in Senator Taylor’s quote, the benefits of Caylee’s Law were discussed
not only in terms of accountability and punishment, but also as a way to ensure the
safety of children. This was one of the most prevalent themes in policymakers’ rheto-
ric. Over a third of the policymakers (47) mentioned protecting children as a driving
factor (and benefit) in proposing such legislation.
This bill protects our children by requiring that the people involved tell the truth in these
investigations. (Rep. Toohil, R-PA) (Light, 2012)
This bill focuses on protecting Hawaii’s keiki [children] by ensuring that greater
accountability and responsibility be placed on parents and guardians to report a missing
child in a timely manner. (Sen. Dela Cruz, D-HI) (“Senator Donovan M. Dela Cruz
Introduces ‘Caylee’s Law,’” 2012)
I was motivated [to propose Caylee’s Law] by the protection of children. Nothing is more
important to me as a legislator. (Sen. Farnese, D-FL) (Cato, 2011)
In addition, at least 17 of these policymakers used rhetoric that described the law as
helping to keep children out of danger and/or away from harm, particularly as it relates
to instances that are similar to the Casey Anthony case.
The main thing here is the safety of the child. We want to make sure we get that child out
of the harm’s way as soon as we can immediately. (Rep. Mizuno, D-HI) (“Hawaii
Lawmaker to Introduce ‘Caylee’s Law,’” 2011)
My hope is that this legislation can prevent similar tragedies from occurring in Oklahoma,
and bring those who would harm children to justice. (Sen. Shorey, R-OK) (“Oklahoma
Senate Approves Caylee’s Law,” 2012)
Our hope is that we can prevent similar occurrences and bring justice to those who would
harm children. (Sen. Treat, R-OK) (OKSenate.gov, 2011)
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A related way that policymakers indicated the law would ensure child safety was
through deterring potential offenders. The 11 policymakers that mentioned deterrence
used terms such as “warn,” “think twice,” and “discourage” in their rhetoric.
If there are laws like this, people like that mother will think twice about concealing the death
of a child or waiting 30 days before they report it. (Sen. Farnesse, D-PA) (Owens, 2011)
[The Law] is narrowly tailored to provide adequate deterrence to direct caregivers from
acts of criminal neglect. (Rep. Pak, R-GA) (“Rep. Co-Sponsors Caylee Anthony Law in
Georgia,” 2012)
This law will discourage behavior like that seen in the case of Casey Anthony. (Sen.
Harris, R-TX) (Webb, 2011)
In discussing this issue, at least four policymakers made the case that even if only
one child’s life was saved, it would be enough to justify passing Caylee’s Law.
If something like this would protect one child, that one child is all we need to make this
bill worthwhile. (Rep. Carpino, R-CT) (Fenster, 2012)
Even if it results in the saving of one young life, our efforts will be time well spent. (Rep.
Simmons, R-PA) (States News Service, 2012)
In the process [of passing this bill], we may end up saving a life and that makes this effort
more than worthwhile. (Rep. Shipley R-TN) (House Republican Caucus, 2011)
Indeed, Rep. Shipley (R-TN) went further by posing an oddly worded rhetorical
question to the public, asking, “What price the life of a child?” (Hayes, 2012). Clearly
the implied answer is that every child’s life is priceless, and no cost should be spared
when working to protect children’s lives.
This “priceless” rhetoric supports Zelizer’s (1994) findings regarding the “sacral-
ization” of children’s lives across various dimensions of American society during the
20th century (see also Pfohl, 1977).13 It also supports Best’s (1987) findings that poli-
cymakers use the “warrant” of saving children’s lives to justify taking action (see also
Toulmin, 1958). In short, prior social movements had resulted in children becoming
seen as idealized, priceless victims, and as a result, public concern with protecting
children from harm dramatically increased. This, in turn, provided a way for current
policymakers to describe the implicit value of Caylee’s Law.
Problems
Similar to the findings of Filler (2001), potential problems with the law were rarely
discussed by policymakers. In fact, only five policymakers voiced any hesitations
about supporting such a quickly proposed law:
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I just feel that it’s a knee-jerk reaction to rush out to judgment and say we need to get a
law in place. Instead maybe what we ought to do is really encourage parents to do the
right thing and be good parents. (Rep. Barickman, R-IL) (WJBC Staff, 2011)
It may be that there is a gap in our law. To fail to report a death and thereby compromise
an investigation, should that just be a misdemeanor? I’m not so sure . . . There’s an
argument that can be made for it but it can’t be made in haste. (Rep. Kagan, D-CO) (Rose,
2011)
But we have to also be careful going forward to make sure [the law] passes the common-
sense test. (Sen. Perkins, R-WY) (T. Brown, 2011)
However, how policymakers discussed this issue is important. That is, when poli-
cymakers did acknowledge potential problems with the proposed law, it was usually
discussed in a way that minimized or sidestepped the actual concerns.
For example, and surprisingly, three policymakers explicitly acknowledged that the
law would likely not deter anyone or save a child’s life. In fact, one of these policy-
makers acknowledged this idea right before noting that saving even a single life would
justify Caylee’s Law.
I do not think this will prevent a child from being murdered . . . but I do think it will
provide another tool to prosecutors. If its passage saves one life, everyone in this room
will have done the job they’re intended to do. (Rep. Tamburello, R-NH) (Bradley, 2012)
As implied in Rep. Tamburello’s quote, rather than using this admission of inef-
fectiveness as a means to dismiss the law, policymakers instead focused attention back
to the tangible benefits that the justice system would experience.
It probably won’t be a deterrent to crime, but at least it’s something the prosecutors can
charge someone with who’s violated the law. (Rep. Wesselhoft, R-OK) (Wilson, 2011)
By first admitting that the law may not save any lives, policymakers are then free
to redirect attention to the benefits the law is expected to have, effectively sidestepping
the earlier admission of ineffectiveness.
In addition, at least 22 policymakers proactively address these concerns by indicat-
ing that they either acted “carefully” or “deliberately” in considering proposed changes
to the law, or that the law was a reasonable and sound policy decision.
This legislation is a responsible solution to make sure the safety of our children is of the
utmost importance not only to our families but to law enforcement as well. (Rep. Dorman,
D-OK) (OKSenate.gov, 2012)
We intend to work on crafting well-vetted legislation that reasonably, clearly and without
question defines who is liable and when the liability period begins to ensure that there are
no unintended consequences of this law. (Joint Op-Ed from Rep. Bettencourt, R-NH,
Rep. Tholl, R-NH, and Rep. Renzullo, R-NH) (Bettencourt, Tholl, & Renzullo, 2011)
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With this measure, we have carefully crafted a comprehensive bill that would fix the
shortcomings of state law to ensure that children are protected and perpetrators are
appropriately punished. (Sen. Skelos, R-NY) (“Senate Introduces ‘Protect Our Children’
Act,” 2011)
This type of rhetoric serves as a proactive defense against accusations that Caylee’s
Law proposals are knee-jerk responses, and provides an assurance that the resulting
law will be a reasonable and useful policy. As such, concerns with the law were not
only fairly limited but were typically mentioned only as a vehicle to help describe
either the benefits of the law or the careful and measured consideration that policy-
makers were devoting to crafting the law.
Labeling
In discussing Caylee’s Law, some policymakers used labels to participate in the “ritual
destruction” of Casey Anthony (see Garfinkel, 1956). For instance, eight policymakers
used rhetoric that negatively labeled Casey Anthony or her actions.
Casey’s actions for the month after her daughter’s disappearance are reprehensible and
show extreme signs of negligence. (Sen. Greenstein, D-NJ) (States News Service, 2011b)
Casey Anthony broke new ground in brazenness. (Rep. Plakon, R-FL) (Kallestad, 2011)
[Caylee’s Law] will put an end to the kind of irresponsible and outrageous behavior we
observed with Caylee’s mother. (Rep. Hagar, R-FL) (Torres, 2011)
These types of labels serve to place Casey Anthony outside of the accepted social
order. As Garfinkel (1956) suggested, this serves to have the denounced be “ritually
separated from a place in the legitimate order . . . be placed ‘outside,’ . . . made
‘strange’” (p. 423). In other words, this rhetoric labels Casey Anthony as a deviant
outsider (Becker, 1997; see also Goffman, 1986).
The negative labeling of Casey and her actions not only serve to degrade her status
in society, they also serve to identify the boundaries of what society considers as
acceptable behavior. As noted by Erikson (1966), when a community censures a devi-
ant act (and actor) with a formal ceremony, it “sharpens the authority of the violated
norm, and restates where the boundaries of the group are located” (p. 13). Thus, when
policymakers label the actions of Casey Anthony as “negligence,” “brazen,” and “irre-
sponsible,” they are defining what is considered unacceptable and deviant behavior.
By proposing to expand criminal law to criminalize a parent’s failure to report a child
missing, policymakers not only tapped into public fears but also appealed to the desire
to publicly denounce and treat repugnant and antisocial behavior as “criminal” (see
also Simon, 2000). At the same time, policymakers were also helping to identify
actions that, in contrast, are acceptable to society. In this case, those acceptable actions
include reporting missing children in a timely manner to law enforcement.
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In some cases, policymakers were explicit in what society expected from parents
and guardians. That is, policymakers clearly defined what was considered acceptable
behavior in society. At least nine policymakers mentioned or alluded to such societal
expectations for parents.
I don’t think we can prevent irresponsible parenting, but we can certainly put in place
penalties for parents that fail in the most basic fundamental responsibility to safeguard a
child. (Rep. Hagar, R-FL) (Associated Press, 2011b)
[My] bill will say that if you have a small child under the age of 13, you must report that
child missing. If you are a parent or guardian, to do anything different would be
outrageous. (Sen. Jones, R-MI) (“Michigan Responds to Caylee Anthony Case,” 2011)
It is unconscionable that anyone would wait 31 days to report the disappearance of a
child, and we are acting to make sure a similar case does not happen here in Michigan.
(Sen. Rocca, R-MI) (J. Bowen, 2011)
The use of labeling by policymakers extended beyond just Casey Anthony and her
actions. Policymakers also used specific language to help label or otherwise identify
themselves in a certain ways. For instance, one of the more prominent themes in the
data was the use of language to identify the speaker as a member of the local commu-
nity. As an example, at least 23 policymakers referred to “our children” in their rheto-
ric, which helps to indicate the speaker is part of a collective effort by society to
protect all children, rather than it being the duty of the individual parent or guardian.
I stand with hundreds of my constituents and the concerned citizens who contacted me to
support a measure to further safeguard our children and our communities. (Rep. Nybo,
R-IL) (Illinois State House Republican Staff, 2011)
It’s an important bill borne out of tremendous constituent outpouring to fix Michigan law
and better protect our children. (Sen. Casperson, R-MI) (“‘Caylee’s Law’ Approved by
MI Senate Panel,” 2011)
While justice failed to be served for Caylee in Florida, we must not allow that to happen
to any of our children in New Jersey. (Rep. DiCicco, R-NJ) (DiCicco, 2011)
In one of the more direct instances of this, in an op-ed written by three New
Hampshire Republican Representatives, potential criticism of the law was downplayed
by the use of folksy sayings:
Granite Staters should trust the Yankee common sense of the New Hampshire Legislature
to provide a competent, well-vetted law necessary to protect and give justice to our
children. (Joint Op-Ed from Rep. Bettencourt, R-NH, Rep. Tholl, R-NH, and Rep.
Renzullo, R-NH) (Bettencourt et al., 2011)
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Similarly, an Ohio Democrat Senator referred to the local geography to help link
both herself and her constituents to Caylee Anthony.
Her family’s connection to the Mahoning Valley made it feel even more personal to me
and many of my constituents. (Sen. Cafaro, D-OH) (Parks, 2011)
The use of phrases such as “Granite Staters,” “Yankee common sense,” and
“Mahoning Valley” help identify the policymaker as one of the “locals.”
In using labels to identify similarities to the rest of the community, speakers also
referred to their relationships with their own families. For eight policymakers, this
took the form of specifically mentioning they were a parent or grandparent.
As a mother and grandmother, it breaks my heart to think that some parents knowingly
jeopardize their children’s safety. Families have a very special duty to the members of
their family. (Rep. Johnson, D-CT) (Smith, 2011)
As a parent and grandparent, how anyone could fail to report a missing child is beyond
me. (Sen. Jones, R-MI) (States News Service, 2011a)
As a dad, I can’t imagine a parent not reporting a missing child. (Sen. Kissel, R-CT)
(“Sen. Kissel: CT Version of Caylee’s Law Passes Legislature,” 2012)
By referring to themselves in this way, it helps signal that their experiences and
concerns were similar to those of other parents in the community, and thus allows
them to speak on behalf of parents (Garfinkel, 1956). This also served as proof of their
interest and investment in proposing or supporting Caylee’s Law, not as politicians,
but rather as concerned parents.
Discussion
Political rhetoric surrounding both the death of Caylee Anthony and the need to enact
legislation penalizing the failure of parents to report their children missing contained
a variety of interconnected themes. This political rhetoric followed patterns of claims-
making by framing the need for action, proposing and justifying solutions to the prob-
lem via legislation, and using labeling to reaffirm and connect with underlying norms
and values. This pattern is common in political rhetoric and has precedent in other
cases involving children and child abuse (Best, 1990; Filler, 2001).
Unlike many named laws that tap into fears about predatory strangers (Lyons &
Scheingold, 2000; Scheingold, 1984), discussions about Caylee’s Law were unique in
that they focused on addressing parental negligence, tapping into outrage over the
behavior of Casey Anthony. Indeed, rather than focusing on strangers and fear, much
of the rhetoric focused instead on protecting future child victims and punishing poten-
tial offenders. This also helped tap into the rage that people feel about infanticide and
other “associated evils” (see Best, 1987; Oberman, 1996; Spinelli, 2005), negating the
need to focus on “stranger danger” as the driver for proposed policy changes.
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The death of Caylee Anthony and the prosecution of her mother is a clear example
of a triggering event. According to McGarrell and Castellano’s (1991) integrative con-
flict model of criminal law formation, triggering events precipitate political action on
issues that fundamentally exemplify public fears (however much those fears are stoked
by, or are conflated with, political, advocate, and media messages; E. K. Brown, 2012;
McGarrell & Castellano, 1991). In the case of Caylee’s Law, political rhetoric focused,
in part, on demonizing and degrading the status of Casey Anthony. This form of rheto-
ric taps into a labeling theory perspective, particularly one involving status degrada-
tion ceremonies (Garfinkel, 1956).
Harold Garfinkel (1956) noted that degradation ceremonies were used for the “rit-
ual destruction” of the person being denounced. The purpose of the ceremony is to
change how society views an individual, specifically by casting them in a negative
light.
This is accomplished through a number of steps (Garfinkel, 1956): The event and
perpetrator are made out as abnormal and clearly undesirable. The denouncer is made
out as a public figure that is similar to the community’s members, is acting on their
behalf and on behalf of the values of the community, and is in a position to do so. The
denouncer makes both themselves and community members feel distanced from the
perpetrator. Finally, a “successful” degradation ceremony results in the person and the
event being thought of in a negative light.
While Garfinkel (1956) was originally referring to ceremonies involving the
courtroom or hearing itself, through the use of negative labels in their rhetoric, poli-
cymakers used the discussion of Caylee’s Law as a de facto status degradation cer-
emony.14 That is, policymakers used rhetoric that essentially transformed Casey
Anthony’s identity from one of a “mother” into that of a “monster,” seen as being
outside of the accepted social order.15 Policymakers contrasted Casey’s actions with
the actions of “responsible” parents and guardians to show that they clearly differed
from these societal expectations. At the same time, policymakers also used self-
labeling techniques as a way to make themselves out to be similar to community
members, and in a position to act on behalf of society’s values and interests in pro-
tecting children. By distancing both themselves and community members from
Casey Anthony and her actions, it seems that policymakers were attempting a form
of status degradation ceremony through their rhetoric, effectively stigmatizing
Casey Anthony (see Goffman, 1986).16
Although the negative labeling of Casey Anthony was an important theme, per-
haps more important was policymakers’ use of rhetoric to help promote the pas-
sage of Caylee’s Law. That is, it was not enough to simply label Casey as a deviant
or an outsider; rather, policymakers transferred the focus from negative labels
onto the need for policy changes (and thus the need for the actions of policymak-
ers).17 As such, policymakers used the status degradation ceremony as a vehicle
for claims-making, to build support for Caylee’s Law through the vilification of
Casey Anthony and her actions, while discussing the need for, and benefits of, the
proposed law.18
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Limitations
One limitation of this study concerns the collection of policymaker quotes. That is, it
is possible that some quotes covered by the media were unable to be discovered due to
being located behind a newspaper’s paywall (and not otherwise available in the
LexisNexis Academic database). Furthermore, it may be that only certain parts of a
policymaker’s longer, in-person speech was covered in the media, and thus the unre-
ported parts would not have been collected by our search process. As such, the data in
this study do not necessarily represent every quote uttered by a policymaker on this
issue, but rather should be considered in light of the media filtering process that likely
is biased toward reporting more dramatic quotes. When a policymaker issued a press
release on their (or their party’s) website, or wrote an op-ed published in a local paper,
this would be essentially bypassing the media filter to talk directly to the public.
Another limitation concerns the types of policymakers considered. That is, only
state-level policymakers were included in the analysis (in addition to a single U.S.
Representative). Thus, quotes from other policymakers such as governors, prosecu-
tors, police chiefs, or judges were not included in the analysis. These results, therefore,
may not necessarily generalize to other kinds of elected or appointed officials without
direct legislative power. Indeed, given the selection of policymakers included in the
analysis was not a random sample from the larger population of policymakers, it is
unclear how well these results would generalize to all state-level policymakers. Finally,
the qualitative coding process employed by this study is an inherently subjective
approach. While efforts were made to code in as neutral and comprehensive a manner
as possible, it is possible that another set of researchers would code the same data in a
different way, possibly influencing results and interpretations.
Conclusion
The death of Caylee Anthony was a heinous tragedy, and the resulting trial of Casey
Anthony captured the attention of the media, the public, and policymakers around the
nation. It also provided the triggering event needed to promote the passage of Caylee’s
Law, and allowed policymakers to address the public by using specific messages in
their rhetoric. These messages included discussions of the need for Caylee’s Law and
its potential benefits, as well as proactively addressing potential concerns with the law.
In addition, policymakers used their rhetoric to label Casey Anthony, her actions, as
well as themselves in ways that helped promote support for the proposed law. The
driving message behind most of the various themes in policymakers’ rhetoric was that
Caylee’s Law was an important piece of legislation that needed to be passed to help
protect children and punish offenders.
Unlike the development of many other named laws (e.g., Megan’s Law, Jessica’s
Law), which focus on the threat of victimization by strangers, Caylee’s Law provided
an opportunity to examine the rhetoric following a high-profile case involving accusa-
tions of family violence. Policymakers’ rhetoric on Caylee’s Law exemplified the ten-
dency to mobilize political action around “triggering events” through claims-making,
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Socia and Brown 369
to justify new penal legislation on the basis of worst case scenarios and public fears,
and to demonize the accused in ways that reaffirm social solidarity in the face of hei-
nous crimes. While the findings of Filler (2001) provided an important backdrop, the
results of this study show both the similarities and the differences in how policymakers
use rhetoric to promote “child safety” legislation when the use of “stranger danger”
rhetoric is unavailable. Indeed, this study has found that policymakers used a variety
of interconnected techniques from both the claims-making and the labeling domains to
promote their policy agenda with the public.
Acknowledgment
The authors would like to thank Drs. Lisa Broidy, Christopher Dum, Jamie Fader, Wayne
Santoro, Rebecca Stone, and multiple anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on ear-
lier versions of this article.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of
this article.
Notes
1. Furthermore, she was released just 2 weeks after the verdict because she had already spent
3 years in jail awaiting trial, and thus most of her sentence was “time served” with the rest
credited for good behavior.
2. Indeed, it seems that the July Casey Anthony verdict occurred just as many state legis-
latures were preparing to or had already adjourned for the 2011 session, thus limiting
new bill proposals and legislative debates until the next legislative session convened (see
Statescape.com, 2011).
3. While Anthony was ultimately convicted of multiple counts of lying to the police, the case
itself was based around the murder charge, which she was acquitted of.
4. Including reporters’ paraphrased content could have expanded the amount of content able
to be analyzed. However, given the uncertainty of which specific words and phrases were
the policymaker’s, and which were the reporter’s, the decision was made to exclude para-
phrased content and focus instead on actual quotes.
5. For more information on child victim crimes that resulted in calls for legislative action,
particularly in terms of sex offender policies, see the work of Socia and Stamatel (2010).
6. The authors would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for their suggestions on this issue.
7. For instance, the media has certainly covered cases involving mothers killing their own
children, such as those of Andrea Yates, Susan Smith, and, more recently, Megan Huntsman
(see Associated Press, 2014; Meyer & Oberman, 2001; Spinelli, 2005). However, the
Anthony case is unique in that Anthony did not confess to the crime, did not claim an
insanity defense, was acquitted of the murder charge, and the case resulted in calls for
policy changes.
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370 Criminal Justice Policy Review 27(4)
8. While technically still a sample, the data set essentially represents a population of the
quotes given nationwide by state policymakers, within a year of the Anthony verdict, that
were covered in the news media and available electronically through Google News or
LexisNexis databases, individual newspaper websites, or directly from policymaker (or
political party) websites.
9. There was one op-ed jointly written by three Republican Representatives from New
Hampshire. This was counted as three separate individuals for the purposes of counting the
number of policymakers (and associated positions and political parties) represented by the
data set, but only a single instance of the op-ed was analyzed.
10. One reviewer suggested this method was more similar to framework analysis, which
involves thematic coding based on both a priori and emerging concepts (Lacey & Luff,
2009). While this study’s coding process was obviously influenced by the work of Filler
(2001) and others, a specific framework of themes (i.e., an index of codes) was not
generated prior to coding the data. As grounded theory allows for a “sensitizing” stage
to become familiar with the data and the topic, which can influence the themes that may
emerge from the data, this seems more similar to what actually occurred when coding
the data for this study. For more information on the way a conceptual/theoretical frame-
work can be used with a grounded theory approach, see Seibold (2002) and G. A. Bowen
(2006).
11. Leiby Kletzky was a child who was kidnapped and murdered in Brooklyn, New York, on
July 11, 2011 (Baker, Robbins, & Goldstein, 2011).
12. Indeed, K. M. Brown, Keppel, Weis, and Skeen’s (2006) study on missing children homi-
cide cases found that of the abducted children who were murdered, about 47% were killed
within the first hour of the abduction, and about 89% were killed within the first 24 hours.
The report also found that about 87% of missing children were reported within 24 hours of
their initial disappearance (K. M. Brown et al., 2006). As noted by the researchers, “delays
are much more critical in child abduction murders than in other types of investigations,
because missing children who are murdered are killed quickly after their abduction” (K.
M. Brown et al., 2006, p. 13). Of course, it is also important to note that the number of
stranger-abduction child homicides in America has been estimated to be between about 50
and 150 per year (Finkelhor, Hotaling, & Sedlak, 1992), and thus represents a tiny fraction
of the overall number of missing children cases.
13. The authors would like to thank Dr. Jamie Fader for recommending this source.
14. The authors would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this point.
15. In addition, the overall media coverage of the crime, investigation, trial, and verdict likely
aided in this identity transformation above and beyond the actions of policymakers. For
more information on identity transformation and the management of the associated stigma,
see Goffman (1986).
16. However, without analyzing data on the public’s views of Casey Anthony, which is outside
the scope of the present study, the actual “success” of the status degradation ceremony can-
not be determined.
17. The authors would like to thank Wayne Santoro for his help in clarifying this issue.
18. As of early 2014, Caylee’s Law had been proposed in at least 38 states, and had been
enacted in at least 10 states (Associated Press, 2014; Meyer & Oberman, 2001). The
states that have successfully enacted Caylee’s Law include Alabama, Connecticut,
Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, New Jersey, South Dakota, and
Wisconsin.
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Socia and Brown 371
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Author Biographies
Kelly M. Socia is an assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Justice Studies at the
University of Massachusetts, Lowell. His research interests include offender reentry and recidi-
vism, registered sex offenders, public policymaking, geographic information systems, and spa-
tial analyses. He received his PhD in criminal justice from the School of Criminal Justice at the
University at Albany, State University of New York, in 2011.
Elizabeth K. Brown is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University
of Massachusetts, Boston. Her research on penal politics and policy, public opinion, and state-
level criminal justice issues has been published in Punishment & Society, Albany Law Review,
Sociology Compass, and Criminal Justice Policy Review. She received her PhD in criminal
justice from the School of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany, State University of New
York, in 2009.
at UNIV MASSACHUSETTS LOWELL on May 13, 2016cjp.sagepub.comDownloaded from
... This is a problem, as laws targeting violent crimes elicit widespread public support, due in part to the intense emotional responses to the crimes itself and the "othering" of the perpetrators (see Goffman, 1986;Spencer, 2009;Sutherland, 1950b;Wright, 2003). This was seen in Caylee's Law proposals (Socia & Brown, 2016), and is also a recurring theme for policies punishing of sex crimes Socia et al., 2021). Further, certain crimes are associated with perceptions of specific kinds of victims (e.g. ...
... Yet this seems unlikely, given how policymakers publicly discuss proposed laws in ways that highlight such victims (e.g. Socia & Brown, 2016). ...
... This is a problem, as laws targeting violent crimes elicit widespread public support, due in part to the intense emotional responses to the crimes itself and the "othering" of the perpetrators (see Goffman, 1986;Spencer, 2009;Sutherland, 1950b;Wright, 2003). This was seen in Caylee's Law proposals (Socia & Brown, 2016), and is also a recurring theme for policies punishing of sex crimes Socia et al., 2021). Further, certain crimes are associated with perceptions of specific kinds of victims (e.g. ...
... Yet this seems unlikely, given how policymakers publicly discuss proposed laws in ways that highlight such victims (e.g. Socia & Brown, 2016). ...
... Besides studies empirically evaluating the effects of these acts, a more limited amount of research has focused on the rhetorical and symbolic value of individual apostrophe laws. For example, Socia and Brown (2016) examined the political rhetoric surrounding "Caylee's Law," legislation that would criminalize the failure to report a missing child. The law is named after Caylee Anthony, a 2-year-old girl who was murdered, and whose case came into prominence after her mother, Casey Anthony, was tried for and acquitted of her murder in 2011. ...
... While Socia and Brown's (2016) paper was focused on a single victim law, some research has examined apostrophe laws by analyzing them as a collective social phenomenon. A 2005 paper included apostrophe laws in its analysis of crime policies enacted on behalf of particular victims (Wood, 2005). ...
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Full-text available
Megan’s Law. The AMBER Alert Act. Caylee’s Law. The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. These are some of the most well-known examples of “apostrophe laws,” legislation named after individual victims. While prior research has typically focused on the effects of particular apostrophe laws, less research has considered them as expressions of underlying collective social phenomena. This article adds to the current literature by conducting an in-depth analysis regarding the circumstances surrounding the creation of federal apostrophe laws, the intent behind their existence, and relevant factors associated with their passage from proposed bill to enacted legislation. Based on extant research, an analytical framework was developed in which three possible explanations for the passing of apostrophe laws are explored and tested: to honor the victim, as an exploitative law-passing strategy, and as purely symbolic legislation. Although these laws tend to be dismissed as emotion-laden, reactive legislation meant to have little substance, other than to appease the public or to virtue signal, more complex dynamics are at play. In fact, our findings would suggest that, in most cases, the apostrophe law strategy is exploitative in nature, meaning that lawmakers rely on laws named after victims to pass legislation that advances their pre existing political agendas. The present analysis of apostrophe laws’ manifest and latent purposes amplifies the current knowledge on crime-related legislation by examining how extra-legal factors may influence the lawmaking process.
... 143). More recently, Socia and Brown (2016) echoed these sentiments with regard to Caylee's Law, the statutes passed by a number of states in response to the Casey Anthony trial that criminalize the failure to report a missing child. These laws, observe Socia and Brown (2016, p. 348), exemplify that "the tendency to mobilize political action about 'triggering events' through claims-making, to justify new penal legislation on the basis of worst case scenarios and public fears, and to demonize the accused in ways that reaffirm social solidarity in the face of heinous crimes." ...
... The other side of the coin, however, is the receptiveness of political officials pleas for named laws. White, vulnerable victims can provide a valuable means for elected officials to show that they care about public safety (Socia & Brown, 2016). Would a victim named Latisha merit similar populist outrage and a willingness to devote effort to the passing of legislation named in her honor? ...
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Laws named after specific crime victims have become increasingly common. These laws are part of a broader effort to downgrade the status and rehabilitative needs of offenders and to hear the voices and trumpet the legitimate concerns of victims—often as a means of justifying punitive crime control policies. Beyond the substantive merit of individual statutes, collectively these named laws provide a clear image of which victims warrant protection and memorialization: Victims who are vulnerable in some way, who are pursued by predatory criminals into their otherwise safe domains, and—above all—who are White. In this regard, an analysis of 51 named laws from 1990 to 2016 reveals that the vast majority of them (86.3%) honor White victims. In asking the question, “Where is Latisha’s Law?,” we seek to illuminate the virtual invisibility of African American victims and the implicit social construction of which lives matter more in American society.
... This type of policymaking, based on misconception and fear rather than evidence, is consistent with the tenets of CCT, which asserts that this condition becomes problematic when such policies make individuals feel safer without making them actually safer (Griffin & Miller, 2008). Similar processes have occurred with other "child-protection" policies, such as AMBER Alerts (Griffin & Miller, 2008;Zgoba, 2004) and Caylee's law (Socia & Brown, 2014). ...
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Survey research suggests that many members of the public ascribe to myths about sex offenders. These “mythic narratives” relate to the perceived homogeneity of the sex offender population and the extent and nature of reoffense risk. The prominence of such belief systems in media and policy discourse may contribute to adoption of public policies that carry significant symbolic value, yet may fall short of their ostensible goals of protecting children and preventing sexual victimization—a condition framed by some as crime control theater. This study surveyed a nationally representative Internet sample of 1,000 U.S. adults to examine mythic narrative beliefs regarding the risk presented by registered sex offenders (RSOs) who are on the public Internet registry. Respondents estimated the proportion of RSOs who were pedophiles, sexual predators, strangers to their victims, and who were at a high risk of committing 6 types of sexual and nonsexual offenses. Factor analysis revealed high levels of convergence in respondent ratings across these 9 variables, and relatively high estimates of RSO risk, affirming that the public generally ascribes to the mythic narratives underlying crime control theater. Higher estimates of RSO risk were associated with respondents who were female, Hispanic, less educated, more conservative, and less politically knowledgeable. Further, higher estimates of RSO risk were associated with never having used the registry, believing the registry is effective and warrants increased funding, believing sex crimes are increasing, and maintaining that research evidence would not change their views about registry effectiveness. Implications for policy and practice are discussed.
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This article examines the common assertion that the Republican Party “owns” the issue of crime, which holds that the party has garnered electoral support when crime is a salient political issue. Competing explanations about the origins of the American public’s crime concern are tested in an electoral context. Utilizing data on races for the U.S. House of Representatives and races for the U.S. Senate held from 1974 to 2008, the analyses show that increased salience of crime has provided electoral benefits for Republican candidates. Furthermore, they show that Republicans have increased these gains by responsively catering their message to the issue at times of peak concern. Altogether, the results provide support for Republican issue ownership of crime.
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Students of deviance, social problems, and politics have used the concept of a moral panic to describe sudden concern over a group or activity, accompanied by calls for control and suppression. Out of an infinite range of potential perceived threats, one – which may or may not be new – is suddenly the center of considerable attention. The news media, public officials, religious leaders, and private ‘moral entrepreneurs’ are key in focusing public attention on the issue, typically by identifying some recognizable group as ‘folk devils’ responsible for the menace. Human history has been full of rumors, fears, and efforts – often deadly – to constrain or eliminate the human source of perceived problems.
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