Casey Anthony Trial | Day 21 – Daily Updates (Thoughts & Observations)
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Day 21 – June 17, 2011 – Friday
The Defense’s List of Witnesses for June 17, 2011
- First Prosecution Witness: Dr. Timothy Huntington – Professional Forensic Entomologist Consultant, Asst. Professor of Biology in Nebraska.
The Defense’s Witness:
The Forensic Entomologist
The Defense spent the entire day with one witness, Dr. Tim Huntington, a Forensic Entomologist with impressive credentials and a history of working with law enforcement. Nonetheless, his testimony resulted in heated and somewhat sarcastic exchanges by Mr. Ashton, the prosecutor, as well as repeated sidebars, lengthy proffers, and discussions with the Judge outside the presence of the jury.
Dr. Huntington explained that the amount of entomological (bug) evidence found in the trunk of the car and the trash bag found in the trunk was insignificant and inconsistent with a decomposing body being in the trunk. The stains found on the spare tire carpet and trunk liner, according to the witness, were not the right color and lacked the darkened ring one finds with decomposing bodies, especially on carpets, and therefore he did not think those stains were caused by decompositional fluid. And based on an experiment he conducted with a freshly killed pig placed in the trunk of a tightly sealed car, the early colonizing flies will find their way into the trunk and produce hundreds to thousands of flies and maggots, which Casey Anthony’s trunk did not have.
Lastly, Dr. Huntington pointed out that he had a different interpretation of the infamous paper towels in the trash bag. Dr. Vass had insinuated that the paper towels contained adipocere – a decompositional waxy substance – and this was the result of someone trying to wipe up the decompositional fluid in the trunk, which provided the food source to attract flies into the trash bag, evidenced by the few cocoon casings found embedded in the paper towels. However, Dr. Huntington pointed out that Dr. Vass’s “report does not state that the paper towels have adipocere, only that it has a fatty-like substance ‘like’ adipocere – it doesn’t state that it does have it, just something like it.”
Dr. Huntington explained that the fly eggs are deposited on the food source, they grow into maggots who feed on the food source, and then the maggots crawl away from the food source, sometimes 30-60 feet away, to pupate – the dormant, cocoon phase – and they like to find a place with nooks and crannies, like a crumpled up paper towel, in which to hide as a form of self-preservation. The fact that the crumpled up paper towels in the trash bag had cocoon casings was consistent with the paper towels not containing the food source.
Dr. Timothy Huntington
Today there was just one witness, Forensic Entomologist, Dr. Timothy Huntington from Nebraska. Dr. Huntington was young but his credentials were impressive with a Bachelor’s in Biology, a Master’s in Entomology, and a PhD in Forensic Entomology. This university professor and professional forensic entomologist consultant, is also the youngest member in the American Board of Forensic Entomology where he is a diplomate. As he explained it, this is the only certifying board in the world in Forensic Entomology, and there are only 15 members. He has written numerous peer-reviewed publications and conducted many studies in the field of forensic entomology.
It was clear from his day-long testimony that he really loves bugs and he loves to teach. He was very good at explaining his professional field and insect behavior in relation to dead bodies, and he did it all with a surprising, albeit somewhat macabre, sense of humor. His field is concerned with estimating the time of death by figuring out the time between death and discovery of the body through the study of insects that typically use the body as a food source.
Of note, depending on the species, most insects associated with a dead body will feed on the corpse during their active phase and then crawl away from the body, typically 30 to 60 feet, for their dormant phase to protect themselves from being eaten by the next round of animals feeding on the corpse. By studying the rates of development for various species, looking for evidence of their stage of development, and knowing the ambient temperatures, you can determine how long a body has been dead. [In court time, this took an eternity to explain!]
Dr. Huntington explained that the moment we die, or any animal dies, we give off a chemical that a blow fly can detect a couple of miles away. He said the fastest he ever recorded a blow fly getting to a newly deceased body was 13 seconds. Generally, blow flies are the first to get to a body and lay their eggs.
The Pig Experiment
The forensic entomologist described a study he conducted with a freshly killed pig, placed in the trunk of a donated junk yard car, to study what kind of a barrier a trunk would present to bugs getting to the remains, and was kind enough to share his photos… of the decomposing pig… with hundreds or thousands of maggots crawling away from the carcass in the trunk, maggots burrowing themselves into the carpet and under the trunk liner, surrounded by hundreds or thousands of living and dead flies and pupated maggots in the trunk and in the passenger areas of the car. His conclusion was that the trunk did not form much of a barrier to the insects.
The Decompositional Stain
Dr. Huntington described the liquid ring of decompositional fluid that leaches out of the body, creating a stain with a darkened ring. At this moment the prosecutor, Mr. Ashton, objected numerous times, with numerous sidebars, resulting in the judge excusing the jury for the second time that morning. [The reason that the Prosecution was objecting is because the stain in Casey’s car did not look like what Dr. Huntington described.]
Outside the presence of the jury, the doctor was asked if the stain was easily distinguishable, and he replied that it was, describing the color and the darkened ring. He added that you can also do a phenolphaline test to check for decompositional fluid. [The reason this is important if because Ms. Seubert, the FBI examiner, had earlier testified that those tests, from the trunk of Casey’s car, came back negative.]
Mr. Baez asked Dr. Huntington “if you can wipe away decompositional fluid with paper towels?” The doctor replied that you could try, but the fluid is greasy and sticky and once it soaks in there, he was not sure a professional cleaning service would be able to get it out. He explained that when a person dies on a carpet, the carpet is thrown out. He has never heard of anyone trying to clean it.
The Entomological Evidence
The doctor explained that in this case the entomological evidence was insignificant. There was one leg from one fly in the family of blow flies found in the trash bag, along with some Megaselia scalaris in the trash bag. The Megaselia scalaris are fruit-type flies; they eat just about everything that is organic material; they are very generalist flies; they are often found in garbage bags. These flies are so small and common, they don’t require much food; so the numbers found in the trash bag are not indicative of something large decomposing. In fact, the small amount of tobacco spit found in the bag is probably what had attracted them to the bag. They are not early colonizers; they are one of the last flies to colonize a body. He was expecting to see hundreds to thousands of insects and flies in the trunk, especially the early colonizing blow flies, if there had been a decomposing body in the trunk. In short, he said that the entomological evidence found meant nothing.
The Paper Towels
Mr. Baez then asked the doctor about the paper towels found in the trash bag in the trunk. Dr. Huntington said that the paper towels contained some empty cocoons, no live material associated with them, just the casings. Given the articles in the bag it did not surprise him, because a crumpled paper towel has the nook and crannies in which maggots like to hide and pupate. “If there had been a food source on the paper towels,” Dr. Huntington explained, “I would expect them not to be there because they leave the food source.” The fact that they were there meant to the doctor that the paper towels were not the food source. “The flies flew away after the cocoon stage. They were not there eating, this is where they went to pupate.” [The significance of this is because the Prosecution’s forensic entomologist and anthropologist experts testified that the paper towels contained adipocere, the post-decomposition fat deposits, and that the cocoon casings was evidence that the insects had been feeding on the adipocere on the paper towels. ]
The Recovery Site
Dr. Huntington’s opinion is that the body was moved to the site where it was found because of the lack of early colonizers, the blow flies. “A body that was readily accessible outdoors, the absence of those early colonizers is unusual, it tells you the body was moved from some other location given the absence of those flies. Definitely tells you post-mortem movement.”
Dr. Huntington added, “There were a few early colonizers, three, in the bag. The only early colonizing insects found in the area were the few found in the bag. That supports the idea that the body was moved. Not finding the early colonizers tells you that. If the body had decomposed at that site you would have found a lot of them all over the site.”
The soil is another indicator that the body was moved to that site. “When the decompositional fluids come out of the body those fluids will leach into the soil.” The decompositional fluids in the soil will change the biologic community in that area, it will affect the biotic communities (living) and the abiotic (non-living) communities. There was no evidence of decompositional staining on the soil where the remains were found.
Jeff Ashton conducted the cross-examination of Dr. Huntington and began by asking if the doctor believed the body was fully skeletonized elsewhere. The doctor said that what he had referred to were the early stages of decomposition, including the fresh stage, the bloat stage, and possibly the beginning of the decay stage, as having happened elsewhere.
Accumulated Degree Days
Mr. Ashton and Dr. Huntington then had a lengthy discussion about the accumulated degree days, which is a mathematical construct that helps forensic entomologists determine the average temperatures during specific days, which impacted the insect growth rates. The prosecutor asked the witness how many days he believed the body was at another location, on a hot 95 degree day. [As would have been likely on June 16,2008.] The doctor’s estimate was between 2-4 days.
The Trunk Experiment
The prosecutor then asked the witness about the experiment he conducted with the pig in the car trunk, and specifically if he created this experiment for this trial. The doctor answered that he had not, he had a long standing interest in doing this experiment, but he had told the Defense about it.
Dr. Huntington was asked if all of his knowledge about trunk decomposition comes from this experiment, but he replied that he has studied literature that deals with bodies in trunks. Ashton then asked, “None of your studies involved a child wrapped in a blanket and put into trash bags. Did they?” and Dr. Huntington replied that they had not.
Mr. Ashton, with a serious face, asked Dr. Huntington, “Why didn’t you wrap your pigs in a blanket?” and laughter broke out. Mr. Ashton apologized to the court and said he had to ask it. The doctor, who himself had displayed a sense of humor throughout the day, replied, “No, I did not wrap my pigs in a blanket.” and smiled.
They did seriously go on to discuss why bags would not be much of a deterrent to insects if they are able to get past the trunk, and Dr. Huntington explained that if the smells can get out of the bag, then that means that the bag is not air tight. The flies can smell the decompositional chemicals two miles away, and they are driven to lay their eggs on a decomposing body, be it human or animal. The flies will lay their eggs at the opening of the bag, if they cannot get in and the maggots will get through to feed on the body.
Mr. Ashton wondered if chloroform would kill insects, such as the ones that might be attracted to a decomposing body, and the doctor replied that in high enough concentration, it would.
The prosecutor then asked if the chloroform would change the chemistry of the air in such a way that it would alter the attraction of the odor to the flies. Dr. Huntington explained that a blow fly can smell parts per billions, several miles away, and hence it would not alter their attraction to a decomposing body. “Your hypothesis would require a 100% displacement of molecules in the air with chloroform.”
The Tobacco Spit
Jeff Ashton cross-examined the Dr. Huntington about his assertion under direct examination that the flies that were found inside the trash bag were probably attracted to the tobacco spit in some of the empty soda cans, and not to the paper towels where cocoon casings were found. He explained further that the saliva in the tobacco spit is a biological fluid that also decomposes and sends out the chemical signals that attract those flies.
Mr. Ashton doubted that there was tobacco spit in the empty soda cans and opened some evidence packets so that the doctor could look at the soda cans and point out the spit. Not in the first can, but on the second can he was able to point out the dried brownish substance near the opening of the can and said, “This would easily have attracted the scuttle flies.”
ASHTON: Doesn’t the record show that all the cans were empty?
HUNTINGTON: One can assume that cans with tobacco spit in a garbage bag in the trunk of a car in the Florida heat, one can assume that it would have evaporated.
ASHTON: there is no entomological evidence in the cans?
HUNTINGTON: Not in the cans, but there are evidence photos that show that evidence of bugs on the can.
Under the Defense re-direct, Dr. Huntington explained that his opinion concerning the body being moved is not different from the opinion of the Prosecution’s forensic entomologist expert, Dr. Haskell. According to Dr. Huntington, “The body was probably there months. The evidence at the scene showed that the body was moved after the death and after some stage of decomposition had taken place.”
Where the two disagree is where the body was prior to it being moved. Dr. Huntington surprised everyone with his opinion that the body was not in the trunk, saying, “Dr. Haskell makes an association with the body being contained in the trunk, but I do not find anything that makes me think there was a body in the trunk.” In part, he said, because in Dr. Haskell’s report he noted finding only 75 puparae of the early colonizers in the canvas bag and “that is very few considering one female fly can lay upwards of 300 eggs.” Dr. Huntington did not feel that the chloroform would have been a deterrent to the early colonizers because there were some found in the bag, and it either is or it isn’t a deterrent.
Dr. Huntington was asked about Dr. Vass’s report regarding the adipocere and the paper towels and said, “The report does not state that the paper towels have adipocere, only that is has a fatty-like substance ‘like’ adipocere – it doesn’t state that it does have it, just something like it.”
Mr. Baez asked the doctor if looking at the photos of the stains in the trunk, if he saw a stain that could have been produced by decompositional fluid, and Dr. Huntington responded, “Looking at the state’s photo, it does not look like a decompositional fluid stain.”
The Re-Cross and The Re-Direct
Prosecutor Ashton asked the doctor if he knew the condition of the trash bag when it was in the trunk and in the tow-yard dumpster, and Dr. Huntington replied that he did not. Ashton asked the doctor about not examining the actual stain, only photographs of the stain, but the doctor felt he was still able to give an opinion on it.
Mr. Ashton asked Dr. Huntington if he was a forensic anthropologist, and the doctor replied that he was not, which prompted this exchange:
AHTON: You got your PhD in 2008?
ASHTON: The same year this happened?
ASHTON: Your Masters in 2005?
ASHTON: Your experience with adipocere began in 2008?
ASHTON: In 2005?
DR.H: No, sir.
ASHTON: Then when?
DR.H: In High school, when I was 16, I started working for a mortuary service and witnessed the exhumation of bodies, and other situations where I had the opportunity to see adipocere.
Changing subjects, Mr. Ashton asked Dr. Huntington if he was aware that all expert witnesses are required to put their every opinion and conclusion in this case in their reports and he did not put his opinion about the decompositional fluid stain in his report, and the doctor simply replied, “No, it is not there.”
Mr. Baez closed off his re-direct by reminding the jury that Dr. Huntington was the youngest board certified forensic entomologist by the American Board of Forensic Entomology; and that he has consulted on 75 cases. He further pointed out that forensic entomologists often work by looking at photographs, and Dr. Huntington responded, “Any forensic entomologist should be able to look at those photographs and come to the same conclusion I did.”
If some particular member of the jury was looking for something on which to pin reasonable doubt, perhaps Dr. Huntington, a highly-qualified expert, gave it to them.
Dr. Huntington’s conclusions and opinions that the stain did not look like a human decompositional stain; that he saw nothing that made him think there was a decomposing body in the trunk; and that he did not think the paper towels in the trash bag contained adipocere, might be enough to give some jurors pause.
I somehow doubt that the jurors will ignore the forest for the trees, but they might begin to question whether they can give someone the death penalty, when the expert witnesses can testify to completely opposite opinions.
What are your thoughts?
Martie Hevia (c) 2011 – All Rights Reserved