The Casey Anthony trial contains the kind of intrigue, lies and colorful characters that makes today's reality television so irresistible to viewers. But to Katie Osterling, it's first and foremost a story about mothers and daughters.
Osterling, who has a 7-month-old girl, got swept up in the case because of one central question: Did a mother murder her daughter? And, if she did, what would drive a woman to do such a thing, when mothers and daughters have such a powerful bond?
"That's such a special connection," said Osterling, of St. Petersburg. "I don't understand how you could do that."
It's hard for mothers not to think of their own children as Anthony's case unfolds. The story started out as any parent's nightmare, the disappearance of a child. Then it turned into a murder mystery and, finally, a baffling court case. The prosecution's premise, that Anthony may have killed 2-year-old Caylee to "live the good life," is shocking and infuriating to women who initially were sympathetic to the young mom.
Throughout the trial, moms have tuned in to hear about Anthony's actions and watch her reactions. She appeared unaffected when Caylee went missing. She lied to her parents. She made up a kidnapper. She partied.
And they've turned to each other to make sense of it all – in person and online through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Maureen Jacobs, co-owner of the social networking site Diva Café Moms, said she posts play-by-play of the trial daily on Twitter because she knows the case holds high interest for mothers. She has picked up more than 2,000 followers during the trial, surpassing 13,000.
The murder hooked everyone at first because it involved a child, Jacobs said. Now they're trying to figure out Casey Anthony and her mother, Cindy.
Caylee's grandmother has been emotional throughout the trial, weeping openly on the stand when the defense played a video of Caylee playing.
Casey Anthony, seen in some photos as a smiling party girl and in others as a loving mommy, sits at the trial mostly stone-faced, in plain button-down shirts.
"If you're not a mother or haven't been, you cannot understand the realm of what love is for a child," said Jacobs, a mother of two from Daytona Beach. "If (Casey) is innocent, how can she sit there stoically and not render any form of emotion? If it was my child, I would be all over the place. I would be unhinged."
Jennifer Farrell, a Brooksville mother of four, doesn't get it, either.
"I try to sit there and watch her," said Farrell, 30, who has commented on the case on a TBO.com chat room. "I watch her to see her reactions and expression. I keep trying to analyze her a lot. I look at my 2-year-old and say, 'I couldn't imagine doing that to her.'"
Glenn Sparks, a communication professor at Purdue University, said mothers and fathers can't help feeling intrigued by the Anthony case. It's rare for a mother to be accused of murdering her child, and viewers tune in for the same reason they rubberneck at car accidents: You don't want to look, but everyone else is, and, gosh, how bizarre!
The trial's twists, sensationalism and ambiguity combine elements of popular legal shows like "Law & Order" with the kind of up-close-and-way-too-personal family dynamics we've come to expect from reality television.
And it's better than most reality shows, Sparks said, because it is unedited and unscripted.
"What you have is the ultimate reality television," he said. "What we're seeing is untainted reality. These are real people. There are no actors or actresses here. That really lifts that sort of veil that shrouds reality television."
The trial also has sparked parenting debates. When Anthony's mother testified she had searched for chloroform on the family computer -- eliminating a link between Casey and a chemical possibly used in Caylee's death -- it made many following the case wonder if she was lying to protect her daughter.
Suzy Frizzell, 54, who has two sons and four grandchildren, couldn't understand that.
"I love my kids to death," said Frizzell, of Tampa. "I'll do anything for them. But there's a limit."
Other moms aren't as sure where their boundaries are.
Osterling, 26, said she wonders how far she would go for her daughter.
"Even if my kid did something horrible, horrible, you still love your kid no matter what," she said.
Farrell has seen Cindy Anthony lambasted online, even painted as the mastermind behind a disturbed family. But she feels for her and says she isn't sure she wouldn't be tempted to perjure herself to save her own children. Cindy Anthony has already lost a granddaughter, Farrell said. Should she lose her daughter to a death sentence, too?
No matter what the outcome, the trial has shredded the family, pitting them against each other and airing their dirty laundry. It's sad, it's maddening, it's outrageous, moms say. And that makes it must-watch TV.