When the not-guilty verdict came down in the Casey Anthony trial last summer, TV personality Nancy Grace exploded in a cable news paroxysm for the ages: “Somewhere out there, the devil is dancing tonight.” The polarizing former prosecutor had massively expanded her national following with her nightly crusades against the 25-year-old Anthony, an unemployed single mom charged with killing her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee. When, soon thereafter, Grace announced she would be joining the cast of Dancing With the Stars, critics had a field day. But her leap into the world of bedazzled spandex was not half as alarming as a less widely discussed foray, into the arena of panic-driven policymaking.
Grace has been a key cultural force behind the emergence of Caylee’s Law, a hasty piece of tough-on-crime legislation currently being considered in more than a dozen US states. Born as an average citizens’ petition on the popular social media website Change.org in the whipped-up hours following Anthony’s acquittal, the appeal accumulated more than 1.3 million signatures—the single fastest-growing campaign in the website’s history. (This had much to do with Grace plugging it on her evening news show, applauding the chance to “actually do something” and scorning those who “just stand by and twiddle their thumbs.”) Caylee’s Law requires parents to report a missing child to the police within twelve, twenty-four or forty-eight hours, depending on the state or, in the case of a child’s death, within one to two hours. (A note to the blissfully Anthony-ignorant: a prime issue at stake in the sensationalized trial was the disturbing length of time it took—a full month—for the Anthony family to report Caylee missing). New Jersey Governor Chris Christie became the first governor to sign the bill into law last month—a particularly strict version that makes the failure to report a missing child punishable by up to eighteen months in prison. New Jersey State Senator Nicholas Sacco, who sponsored the legislation, called it “a well-thought-out bill,” adding that it “would not have prevented what happened, but would have had a greater penalty attached to it.”
On its face, the law sounds well-reasoned. Don’t all parents have certain de facto obligations vis-à-vis their kids—particularly alerting authorities when young lives may be on the line? Michelle Crowder, the 30-year-old Oklahoma mother who authored the Change.org petition, certainly thinks so. “I just decided to jump on there and do it,” she told Grace in an interview tag-lined “Breaking News: Outrage.” But others are not convinced. There is a long history of passing tough-on-crime legislation in the wake of a brutal crime and the results have been mixed, at best. Caylee’s Law is far from unique in transforming the name of an innocent young female victim into a rallying cry for crime-fighting reforms with dubious results. And Grace is only the latest pundit to spin her entertainment empire into a legislative one.
For nearly two centuries, professional news vigilantes have churned out lurid tales of endangered white girls (not to mention diabolical moms); for equally long, these tales have been used to drum up support for some of our nation’s more reactionary and counterproductive public policies. Jim Crow laws often promised to protect “respectable” young white women in the rural south from what the New York Times called, in one 1914 headline, “Negro Cocaine ’Fiends’…A New Southern Menace.” In that same period, anti-immigration policies in the American North and West sought to shield native-born girls from the so-called Yellow Peril, with Munsey’s Magazine warning of the impact “loose-living Orientals” might have on “white girls who [are] not at all of the class that springs from the gutter.”