Casey Anthony Trial | Day 11 – Daily Updates (Thoughts & Observations)
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Day 11 – June 6, 2011 – Monday
The Prosecution’s List of Witnesses for June 6, 2011
- First Prosecution Witness: Dr. Arpad Vass – Research Scientist at Oakridge National Laboratory.
The Prosecution’s Witnesses:
The Controversial Science and Scientist
The Prosecution had one witness on Monday, Dr. Arpad Vass, a well-respected research scientist with an impressive list of credentials and degrees, Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorates, followed by words like Forensic Science, Forensic Anthropology, Biology, and Chemistry. However, he wasn’t without a few kinks in his armor. The Defense made an effort to taint his credibility by asking him about his use of divining rods – made of bent metal hangers – to find graves. They also asked him about a patent he holds for a device that will gain legitimacy, and perhaps investors, through this case, insinuating that perhaps he has a vested interest in slanting his results a certain way.
This witness’s passion for his own research was clear, often needing to be reminded by Judge Perry to slow down. As the day wore on, his excitement gave way to his ennui, as the more tedious aspects of conducting a trial took over.
Dr. Vass analyzed much of the evidence that came from the car, including air samples, carpet samples, and trunk liner samples. He analyzed the evidence collected for chemical compounds that are found during the human decomposition process. If his research is correct, then the data he collected clearly shows that, like Mrs. Anthony said, “there was a dead body in the damn car.”
The Expert Witness
Dr. Arpad Vass works as a research scientist at the Oakridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. He holds a Medical Technology Degree, a Master’s degree in Forensic Science and Criminal Justice, a PhD in Forensic Anthropology, and a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and Chemistry. [In spite of his impressive credentials, what follows was objected to by the Defense repeatedly, to the point of annoyance. Those objections are not included below.]
Dr. Vass excitedly and passionately talked about his work and how he is driven by challenges and solving problems. The latest challenge he has been working on, for a good number of years, is to find ways to determine how long someone has been dead by looking at biochemical parameters of the different stages of death.
The Anthropological Research Facility, otherwise known as ‘The Body Farm,’ is the only facility in the world where you can study whole body decompositional events. They have about 1100 test subjects, people who have donated their bodies to science, and are left outside under various conditions, including being left in vehicles, in trunks of cars, some buried, and some on the surface. And this is the facility where Dr. Vass conducted much of his research.
The Four Stages of Death
Dr. Vass explained that the 4 stages of decomposition are broken out into post-mortem intervals, time since death, that mark certain bio-chemical processes in the body, that result in the liquification or break-down of soft body tissues.
The first stage of death is the Fresh Stage, when autolysis, a self-digestion process takes place. Dr. Vass explained that the over 100 trillion cells in our body don’t know right away that the body has died; and so the cells continue to metabolize, releasing carbon dioxide which builds up in the cells. The carbon dioxide, which is acidic, builds up because there is no respiration to release it, and because of its acidity it easily begins to break down single membrane structures which release enzymes, which then break things down, self-digesting the body. Blisters form and rupture. Skin becomes loosened and sloughs of the body. This process results in the production of nutrient rich fluids, which give the body a moistened appearance, which then leads to the next stage, Putrification.
The second stage of death, Putrification, occurs when microbiological organisms feed on those nutrient rich fluids that come from the body creating the liquifiquation of the body.
The third stage of death, Bloating, comes about when the microorganisms in the intestinal track are metabolizing. This bacterial metabolism, or decomposition in the intestinal track, creates gas, ammonia, hydrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide. The body will bloat wherever bacterial metabolism is happening and gases are trapped.
The final stage of death is Active Decay, which comprises the majority of the decomposition process. At this point, all the organs are liquefied, all the soft tissues dissolve, which then leads to the skeletonized body and possibly dried or mummified tissue.
The Rate of Decomposition
The rate of decomposition is most affected by temperature, the higher the temperature the faster the rate of decomposition. Water, either from the body or the environment, for example, humidity, will also impact the rate of decomposition. The Ph balance, whether something is acidic or basic, will affect the rate of decomposition. And oxygen, whether the body is in an aerobic or anaerobic environment, will affect the rate of decomposition. A more aerobic environment will increase the rate of decomposition, an anaerobic environment, like putting a dead body in a plastic bag, will slow it down.
Dr. Vass’s early work involved the study of the liquification products that the body produced as a result of decomposition to see if he could determine time-intervals between the different break downs. He found that fat and muscle break down into volatile fatty acids. The study ended in the publication of his findings in 1992 in the Journal of Forensic Science.
In particular, Dr. Vass found that organic components are more important in the earlier phases of decomposition and inorganic components – like calcium, magnesium, and sodium – are more important in the later stages. By 2001, and after the third model of post-mortem interval determination, Dr. Vass felt he had reached the limit of his biochemical knowledge.
Detection of Clandestine Graves
The next big challenge for Dr. Vass was to improve the ways in which clandestine graves are located. Since the most successful of the methods used were cadaver dogs, he decided to develop a way to locate clandestine graves using odors.
He spent the next five years at the Body Farm studying the odors and chemical compounds produced by decomposing bodies. He placed a piping system below around and above bodies and began monitoring which chemicals are produced by the body and are able to migrate up above the body and above the ground. The key would be in developing instrumentation that could detect and focus in on those chemicals.
The Smell of Death
The prosecutor then wanted to talk about the odor of human decomposition. Dr. Vass had experienced the smell of 50 decomposing bodies through the different stages from start to finish. He said he found the odor of decomposition to be unique in terms of smell. He explained that he had also worked with animal decomposition (deer, dogs, cats, and roadkill) and found the odor of human decomposition to be clearly distinguishable from that of animal decomposition.
Buried and Unburied Bodies
Dr. Vass’s research between 2002-2007 included a look at environmental factors on the detection of human decomposition odors. He found that barometric pressure pushes the odors down, and rain can dissolve some water soluble chemicals produced by a decomposing body. He also began to study above ground remains.
At the Anthropological Institute (a.k.a., The Body Farm), Dr. Vass studied 10 surface whole body remains, some were lying on the surface, some were in body bags, and some were loosely covered with tarps. He collected air with triple-absorbent traps with activated carbon, as air passes through the traps it captures the chemicals in the air. To facilitate this, Dr. Vass placed tubes near, under, above and around the bodies, using air pumps to suck the air and shoot it through the carbon traps. He then described how he takes the traps to the lab, heats them up, releasing the chemicals, which are captured and studied by his instruments, like the gas spectrometer, and sometimes using cryofocusing, which creates concentrated frozen pellets.
After all that, Dr. Arpad Vass was accepted as an expert witness, and the Defense objected again.
In 2008, Detective Yuri Melich contacted Dr. Vass and sent him some samples to be analyzed in a small metal can. As Dr. Vass was asked by the prosecutor to identify the envelope that contained the metal can with the sample so it could be submitted into evidence, the Defense did what it had been doing since Dr. Vass first sat in the witness stand: they objected. This time they objected to improper chain of custody. Judge Perry, who by now looked beyond annoyed, called for a sidebar.
[The Defense seemed to be objecting over and over, every couple of minutes, to break the jury’s concentration, break the flow, or perhaps plant in the head of at least one juror that there is something improper going on. Other jurors, however, may conclude that the Defense must think that Dr. Vass’s testimony is so important and detrimental, that they better pay closer attention.]
Dr. Vass explained that the first air sample he received in a bag, he did not use in his report because he was not sure how it was collected. He instead analyzed air samples collected with the equipment he sent the Detective’s CSI (Crime Scene Investigative) team. The equipment included a portable air pump and the carbon traps.
Dr. Vass and Dr. Weiss, an analytical chemist at Oakridge National Laboratory, analyzed the air samples using a gas spectrometer. [The Defense continued to object, and the Judge continued to overrule those objections.] Although chloroform is produced in trace amounts during human decomposition, the scientists found that chloroform showed a shockingly high peak in the air sample.
The two scientists incubated the carpet sample to release into the air the absorbed substances in the carpet. They were able to analyze the chemicals released and identified 51 chemicals, one of which was chloroform again. Dr. Vass said they were shocked to find such a huge concentration of the chloroform – they had never seen that in all of their years analyzing human decomposition. Although they had found it in parts per trillion; they had never seen it in parts per million, which was huge to what it should have been or what they had ever seen. [The Defense continued with their objections.]
The chromatogram (graph) was admitted into evidence and shown to the jury. The graph showed peaks of the chemicals found in the carpet and air samples. What was interesting is that they found gasoline compounds in the trunk, which is not surprising given that the gas cans were sometimes placed in the trunk, but what was surprising is that chloroform, which should have been found in trace, or tiny amounts, was found at much, much higher levels than the gasoline. [One must also keep in mind that chloroform is a highly volatile and easily evaporated chemical compound, which means that whatever amounts the scientists found in the trunk more than a month later, would have been infinitesimally smaller than what they must have been when they were first introduced into the trunk.]
Dr. Vass and Dr. Weiss then used the laser induced breakdown spectrography (LIBS) analysis as a way to check for inorganic components in the carpet. The reason they did this is because Dr. Vass’s research had shown that as decomposition progresses, inorganic elements are released. LIBS involves the shooting of a laser at the carpet, which then excites the electrons, releasing energy. The energy is released as a photon of light which then is picked up by the spectrometer. Dr. Vass found a car in a junk yard that was the same make, model, and year as Casey’s car, and analyzed the carpet from that car as a control sample, as a way of ensuring that all carpets from Sunfire Pontiacs did not contain high levels of chloroform. What the control sample analysis showed was that the junkyard car carpet had extremely low chloroform levels, trace amounts, just as you would expect to find in the environment.
Likewise, they found on the carpet from Casey’s car, but not on the control sample from the junkyard car, huge levels of the inorganic compounds the body produces in the later stages of decomposition, such as calcium, magnesium and sodium.
Next, the scientists did chemical extractions from the carpet fibers to get the elements that were not in gaseous form, but rather had absorbed into the carpet fiber and conducted a chromatogram analysis. They found in the carpet fibers extremely high levels of butyric acid, which is one of the first fatty acids that are released during human decomposition.
Before the lunch break, Dr. Vass also mentioned that when he opened the metal can containing a sample of the Casey’s car carpet, the odor of human decomposition was extremely strong. In fact, he said that he was shocked that such a small can could have such a strong odor. He said he instantly recognized that smell, he had smelled it for 20 years.
Paper Towels – Trash Bag
After the lunch recess, Dr. Vass was back to talk more science. This time the Prosecution asked him about the paper towels and napkins found in the trash bag, which had been in the trunk of the car. Dr. Vass and his team did a chemical extraction which revealed a number of fatty acids, including adipocere, which Dr. Vass described as the by-product of the breakdown of fat associated with decomposition. [It is worth noting, that adipocere, this post-mortem waxy residue, forms two weeks to two months after death depending on temperature, conditions, and materials surrounding the corpse. For instance, higher temperatures and anaerobic conditions – like being in a plastic bag – might increase the formation of adipocere.]
Through various control samples, Dr. Vass was able to determine that the carpet was the source of the odors. [In other words, not the trash, not the garage, not the outdoor dumpsters or junkyards, as the Defense has suggested at different times.]
The next discussion was a bit belabored, but the short version is that Dr. Vass identified 51 individual chemical compounds in the car sample; 41 of those compounds were associated with human decomposition. Out of an abundance of precaution, he subtracted from the 41 compounds the compounds that could be associated with gasoline, since the trunk had contained gas cans at one time, even though the elevated levels found in the carpet were not the levels one would have found in gasoline. Nonetheless, that left 24 compounds. Out of the 24 compounds, Dr. Vass subtracted any compounds that were found in the control samples, even if they were not at the same levels found in the controls. That left 16 compounds and of those, 7 were considered uniquely relevant and significant to human decomposition.
Dr. Vass pointed out that not all 478 of the chemical compounds that he documented finding in his study of human decomposition are found all the time in all the phases and cycles of human decomposition. [For instance, some, like chloroform, evaporate, some, like butyric acid are metabolized by micro-organisms very quickly, and so on.]
After reviewing again, all the samples that showed evidence of human decomposition, Dr. Vass was asked if, in his opinion, there was a decomposing human body in the trunk of Casey Anthony’s car, and he answered, “Yes. I can find no other plausible explanation to account for everything that we found in our results.”
Dr. Vass – Cross-Examination
The Defense’s lead attorney, Jose Baez, who had been objecting repeatedly the entire day, began with a couple of rather weak questions… “When was the last time he took a chemistry class?” (In the 1980s.) “Did he post something on Facebook and Wikipedia claiming to be a chemist?” (He had never posted anything on either of those sites, nor asked someone to do it, or authorized someone to do it.)
After a day of endless objections, I expected Mr. Baez to come out with guns-a-blazing, but instead it seemed he had pulled out one of those guns in the cartoons that have a flag pop out with the word, BOOM.
Mr. Baez suggested there was something nefarious in Dr. Vass not turning over the database of 478 chemical compounds, “You refused to turn over the databae!” Dr. Vass replied that it was not his to turn over, it belongs to the organization that paid for the grant and he had been told that the Defense had received the database and list of chemicals.
Next, Mr. Baez threw out an allegation that Dr. Vass was trying to profit from this trial because he is a partial owner of a patent for a device called the Labrador that would use the database he developed. Dr. Vass explained that the tool was developed to help police locate hidden graves, like a metal detector, using the chemical compounds associated with human decomposition. He did not file for the patent himself, the Oakridge National Laboratory handles those things, and he had to ask them about it to respond to the Defense questions about the royalty, the Lab told Dr. Vass that he, along with all the other developers of the Labrador, will share a 15% royalty, if it is ever licensed to anyone. Besides, he added, he is not motivated by money, but by science and challenges.
Then Mr. Baez pointed out that he does not work for a forensic lab, but a research lab, and research labs don’t have protocols like forensic labs. Dr. Vass said that research labs are the ones that create the protocols that forensic labs then follow, nonetheless they do have procedures they use.
Mr. Baez then criticized that Dr. Vass does not do quantitative analysis, but rather qualitative analysis with respect to the chemical compounds found in human decomposition, in other words, he identifies which chemicals, but not how much of those chemicals. Dr. Vass answered that qualitative analysis includes saying “large or small peaks,” which is to some degree quantitative. [Perhaps, Dr. Vass should have mentioned to Mr. Baez and the jury that the chemical compounds do not exist statically, but dynamically – they are constantly changing in quantities – increasing or decreasing, dependent on conditions and phase of decomposition and volatility of the chemical itself – some evaporate, some disappear as they are metabolized – given the nature of what he studies, perhaps qualitative analysis is all he can do.]
The Defense then asked and Dr. Vass denied having tested a control sample to account for whatever chemicals were left behind after Cindy Anthony used Febreze (a spray that covers up unpleasant odors) and the crime scene investigators used Blue Star [a product like Luminol used to detect blood and other stains] inside the trunk of the car, however, one of his chemists did get the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for those products, which list all the ingredients, and he stated that those chemicals could not have contributed to the findings, in particular, neither one contained chloroform.
Mr. Baez then suggested that the adipocere (the waxy deposit of post-mortem decomposed fatty acids) found in the trunk and in the paper towels in the garbage bag found in the trunk perhaps came from hamburgers, suggesting that perhaps someone had eaten a hamburger, wiped their mouth with the paper towels in the trash. Dr. Vass explained that adipocere requires certain conditions for it to form. He said that the meat would have to be raw, with enormous amounts of fat, the person would have to eat the hamburger “with a bag over [their] head” because it requires an anaerobic environment, and it would require human bacteria, but it cannot be caused by someone eating a hamburger and wiping their face.
In order to discredit Dr. Vass, the Defense asked about Dr. Vass’s hobby of using divining rods to find unmarked graves and attempts to put electronic leashes on flies. The Doctor smiled, the Prosecution objected, and that was that.
Dr. Vass – The Re-Direct & The Re-Cross
When the prosecutor conducted his re-direct, they talked about the controls used. Dr. Vass said he found a case in Montana where a three-year-old child was wrapped in a blanket and left decomposing in a car for three months. He was able to confirm that the compounds found in Caylee Anthony’s case were replicated in the Montana case. However, he added, the only compound not found in Montana was chloroform, which was found in huge amounts in the Anthony case.
The prosecutor talked about another point the Defense brought up in their cross examination, the lack of fluorinated compounds typically found in human decomposition, but not found in Caylee’s case. Dr. Vass explained that those fluorinated compounds were also not found in the Montana case. He noted that adults produce a number of fluorinated compounds in part because fluorine accumulates over time in the body by drinking fluorinated water, which many municipalities add to the drinking water. This accumulation of compounds in the human body is called bio-accumulation and over time fluorine will accumulate in the bones and tissue, so when you die fluorinated compounds are produced during human decomposition. In a small child or in a country like Brussels where people do not drink fluorinated water, the body has not bio-accumulated fluorine into the bones and tissue.
Mr. Baez came back to re-cross-examine Dr. Vass and accused him of telling the jury facts that he has not studied, because he has not conducted studies on the lack of fluorine in children. Dr. Vass said it was his opion based on a well-known phenomenon called bio-accumulation.
Next, Mr. Baez asked Dr. Vass if he had any information that the paper towels and the stain in the car trunk had anything to do with each other. Dr. Vass replied that on the paper towels there were fly pupae cases that were found by another scientist and that’s why they tested it.
And, as a parting shot, Dr. Vass added that there was no meat residue on the paper towels, only the breakdown of adipose or fat.
Although the science geek in me was fascinated with Dr. Vass’s testimony, it was at times macabre, painfully detailed, and not for the faint of heart. There were moments I got lost in the lectures and was back in college, fascinated with learning something new, and then suddenly remembering that this was about a little girl. Those chemical compounds he detected, those odors he smelled, those liquids soaked into the trunk liner and carpet, they belonged to a little girl.
Did Casey Anthony make that connection as Dr. Vass described in great detail the auto-digestion of the human body, the gory phases of human decomposition, the unpleasant words associated with it… the bloating, the rupturing, the seeping, the stench… did she realize they were talking about her daughter?
Ms. Anthony sat at the Defense table unaffected by such descriptions of what happened to her little girl. Perhaps it’s stoicism, perhaps she weeps for her daughter every night… perhaps.
Nonetheless, I wondered what the jury was thinking as they watched her dispassionately listen to today’s testimony.
What are your thoughts?
Casey Anthony Trial | Day 12 – Daily Updates (Thoughts & Observations) – Coming Soon
Martie Hevia (c) 2011 – All Rights Reserved