Fueled by verdict anger, push for 'Caylee's Law' starts in Pa., N.J.

Lori Richards of Daytona Beach protesting the Casey Anthony acquittal outside the Orange County Courthouse on Thursday in Orlando, Fla. The public outcry over the case has reached state legislatures across the country. (Roberto Gonzalez / Getty images)
Lori Richards of Daytona Beach protesting the Casey Anthony acquittal outside the Orange County Courthouse on Thursday in Orlando, Fla. The public outcry over the case has reached state legislatures across the country. (Roberto Gonzalez / Getty images)
Posted: July 08, 2011

The national wildfire known as "Caylee's Law" has come to Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Legislators in both states are drafting proposed laws - in response to public uproar over the verdict in the Casey Anthony trial - that would oblige parents and guardians to promptly report the death or disappearance of a child.

The overnight push for new laws has some lawmakers and legal experts cautioning against "knee-jerk" legislation.

Anthony was acquitted in an Orlando, Fla., court Tuesday of murdering her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, who was found dead in 2008. Caylee was missing for 31 days before her death was reported; her mother was found guilty of misleading investigators, a misdemeanor.

The case attracted white-hot public interest, particularly on cable news and the Web. Outcry against the verdict was immediate. Social media and the blogosphere spearheaded outrage that soon went viral. On Twitter, all 10 "trending topics" Tuesday afternoon were Anthony-related; Casey-related tweets numbered 325,283. A Facebook page titled "RIP Caylee Marie Anthony (2005-2008)" attracted 542,678 "likes" by Thursday afternoon.

Michelle Crowder of Oklahoma, inspired by a "Caylee's Law" proposal on Facebook, created a petition for a federal version of such a law on the website Change.org. Crowder wants to make it a felony for parents or caretakers not to report a child's death within one hour or a child's disappearance within 24 hours. The petition had attracted 443,707 supporting votes as of late Thursday afternoon.

By then, versions of "Caylee's Law" were afoot in Congress and seven state capitals, including Trenton and Harrisburg.

State Sen. Larry Farnese (D., Phila.) said he would introduce a bill to toughen penalties against those who conceal a child's death. It also would create a new offense of "neglecting to report a missing child."

The Anthony case "riveted the nation and prompted me to take steps to protect Pennsylvania children from similar injustices," Farnese said. He said he was inspired by a slew of e-mails he received after the verdict.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), said he had not yet seen Farnese's proposal and would review it when it reached his committee. He cautioned against a rush to approve "headline-driven" legislation.

"My first reaction is that too often we pass legislation that is knee-jerk, thinking we solve a problem, and we don't look at the consequences," said Greenleaf, admitting he, too, has been swept up by the pressure to respond to a particularly notorious crime. "That's not good legislation."

Farnese said he didn't consider himself part of a rush to legislate.

"Our job as legislators is to look at trends across the country," he said. "We need to be vigilant."

He said his bill would change concealing the death of a child from a first-degree misdemeanor to a third-degree felony, with a maximum sentence of seven years and a $15,000 fine. It also would create the offense of failure to report a child missing, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

In New Jersey, three Assembly Republicans, Domenick DiCicco of Gloucester and Camden Counties, and John Amodeo and Vince Polistina of Atlantic County, said they, too, were at work on a version of "Caylee's Law."

"Caylee Anthony may have been denied justice, but we can make sure New Jersey's laws reflect our commitment to keeping children safe," Amodeo said.

"Caylee Anthony's death is an unthinkable tragedy that gripped our hearts," DiCicco said. "The jury couldn't agree with absolute certainty that her mother killed this precious child, but there's no doubt she did not want authorities to find Caylee."

The "Caylee's Law" movement joins a number of laws named for victims. Perhaps best known is Megan's Law, enacted in 1994 in New Jersey after the rape and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka by a convicted sex offender who lived across the street.

Of the various "Caylee's Law," proposals, Perry Dane, professor of law at Rutgers University-Camden, said: "Unlike some of the other named laws that have come up in recent years that have seemed like overreactions or had unintended consequences, this one strikes me on its face as one of those perfectly sensible."

Parents and guardians are required by law to provide for and protect children in their care, Dane said, but in the absence of laws specifically aimed at notifying authorities, a "Caylee's Law" may be worth a look.

Rikki Klieman, a Los Angeles-based criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor, said that while she supports the Anthony verdict, she also finds it reasonable in some cases to elevate misdemeanors, such as failure to notify, to felonies.

"But we have to have a debate about defining this," she said. "In some of the proposed laws I've seen, the times are very short. Yes, 31 days is too long, but I can think of many situations in which 48 hours would be too short. We can't put parents and caretakers in a situation that may not be their fault. We have to pay attention to reasonable complications and circumstances."

Some, like Greenleaf, professed unease at laws made in the heat of public reaction to traumatic events or unpopular court decisions. Forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland, of DeSales University in Bethlehem, warned that "if the law and its support are a knee-jerk reaction, then . . . it's part of the spectator-sport aspect of crime coverage" in which people can overidentify, "feeling the win or loss personally."

Greta Van Susteren, the Fox News host , said by e-mail that "99.9 percent of parents report missing children. I hate to think we have to legislate for the one-tenth of one percent who don't. Maybe we have to."

Rutgers' Dane said, "The problem is that such laws can lead to a rush to judgment, and possibly overreaction. We have to look at a proposed statute on its merits, not according to its name."


Contact staff writer John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com.

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