ORLANDO — Hours before sunrise, they line up on the sidewalk in front of the Orange County Courthouse by the dozens — an interior decorator from Savannah, a true-crime blogger from Illinois, a former Miami International Airport air traffic controller — all hoping for a chance to witness the blockbuster murder trial of Casey Anthony.
Armed with coffee and energy drinks, novels and crosswords puzzles, they sit or sprawl on the sidewalk waiting for 5:30 a.m. when the all-out — and much-videoed — sprint begins to secure seats in the courtroom to watch a slice of the trial that has both fascinated and repelled the American public.
Often, the first person in line is Brian Maher, identifiable on Internet videos of the Black Friday-like stampede for seats as the guy wearing the distinctive neck brace. He arrives about 3 a.m. each day to vie for a seat, beating out the latecomers who show up at 5 a.m. or so.
It's a surreal scene, a voyeuristic tableau, that has repeated daily during the trial of the 25-year-old Orlando mother charged with the murder of her 2-year-old daughter.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I have followed this case for three years, I am fascinated with her life and all the stories she has told," says Tiffany Baldridge, 24, who along with an aunt and cousin traveled 150 miles from Lake City to score seats during the third week of the trial. They arrived in Orlando at 1 a.m. Wednesday, heading to the courthouse two hours later to snag positions 8, 9 and 10 in the line, guaranteeing courtroom seats.
"The whole world is watching this," Baldridge marvels.
The story of Casey Marie Anthony, and her daughter, Caylee Marie, has evolved into a breathless soap opera with tabloid twists and turns, characters brought to life by lies, a phantom nanny accused of kidnapping the child, incest claims, the specter of a death sentence — and a rapt American audience that can't seem to get enough of the spectacle playing out in Orlando, land of the Mouse.
Further stoking the interest: a blank-faced Anthony herself, who has displayed little emotion during the trial except when graphic details about her child's remains emerged. She's charged with first-degree murder, accused of suffocating her daughter with duct tape three summers ago, then storing the body in her car trunk. Her defense team contends the girl drowned in the family pool.
As the trial enters its fourth week, the madness — delivered by a mass of media covering the trial live — shows no signs of abating. On Friday morning, as nearly 200 people lined up for entry tickets, police had to break up an early-morning scuffle and one woman was taken to a hospital by ambulance when she fell and the crowd of seat seekers raced past and over her.
The public obsession echoes big cases from the past — O.J. Simpson's murder case, perhaps, or the trial of Michael Jackson. Yet even without the celebrity factor, the Casey Anthony case has captured the collective psyche, driven as much by contemporary social media as the monstrous details of an accused child killer.
"Once you start to take in the details, then you understand why people can't look away. You have the horrible death of an adorable little girl, and by nature we are fascinated with human horrors," says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "When you stack that amount of weirdness up, along with the ease of getting public information in Florida, you have a story that takes on a life of its own."
Leonard and Renae Freeman arrived in Orlando on Monday for a weeklong celebration of their 14th anniversary. But by the next morning, they were standing in front of the courthouse shooting pictures and trying to figure out a way to get into the trial.
"We watch it on television every day and have followed it since we saw the picture of that gorgeous little girl. You saw her face and you cared about her," says Leonard Freeman, a maintenance worker in Tampa. "And then you keep asking yourself, how can someone kill her? Maybe it was an accident, but then you have to ask yourself how can someone lie the way Casey Anthony does. It's hard to let the case go."
The couple even ventured 10 miles outside of downtown to see the Anthony family house on Hopesprings Drive, a pale pink ranch home with three signs near the door that read: "Love," "Faith" and "Hope." After lunch Tuesday, their persistence paid off. The two got passes for the seats of people who hadn't returned for the afternoon court session.
For Brian Maher, otherwise known as "neck brace guy" in the world of the Web, the daily trips to the courthouse were about something else: whiling away the time. Vertebrae surgery in April left him out of work as a truck driver for five to six months. A bit of boredom and the hype of the case lured him to the courthouse, but it was a video clip of him sprinting for a seat with his neck brace on that brought him his own moment of dubious celebrity.
"I was just trying to kill the time while I deal with my injury but it really is an interesting case," says Maher, who has gotten a seat at least seven times. "If I am not fishing, I am here."