Friday, July 15, 2011

Sniffing the Air

by Andrea Campbell

Most everyone I talk to is upset or depressed over the Casey Anthony case, which just recently found her not guilty in the death of her child. Since you would have had to been living in a cave to not know about the case, I will assume you are upset as well.

There is a lot to talk about the forensic evidence in this case, and what for me seems like quite a lot of evidence for a case of this type. But almost all of it seems to be controversial in one way or another. Since I write to you in colloquial terms—as if speaking to a friend—I try not to use terminology that is science jargon, and tend to explain things simply and in a way that anyone can understand.
Types of Evidence
The first important element we can discuss is what types of evidence are used in a court of law. There are more than you may know: direct, circumstantial, biological, reconstructive, associative and, individual or class characteristics.

Direct evidence is thought of as established fact. These are generally eyewitness statements or confessions.

Circumstantial evidence is not absolute proof but provides general knowledge and if you connect the dots, would seem to make sense or act as a logical conclusion. Typically, forensic evidence falls into this latter category. To folks in the criminal justice industry though, forensic science is generally more reliable than direct evidence because eyewitness testimony is sketchy, with people unable to recall events or positively identify suspects.

Biological evidence is anything that comes from a living organism and, in this case, would be the hair found in Casey Anthony’s trunk—this evidence type stems from body functions or fluids shed at the scene.

Of course, physical evidence can be found on inorganic items and some examples are: fingerprints, tool marks, paint, firearms and so on.

Reconstructive evidence helps an investigator figure out the five clues: who, what, where, when and how. The door that was pried open tells us how the perpetrator got into the house for example.

Associative evidence is what ties the suspect to the crime scene. The Casey Anthony case could have been made a lot easier if fingerprints had been found on the duct tape that covered toddler Caylee Anthony’s nose and mouth.

And the typing of evidence, either individual or differentiating is referred to as class characteristics. It follows that anything that is individual, can be narrowed down to one person or calculated as belonging to a very small group of people. The principle used to analyze materials and come to the assumption that it is individual is that no two things are exactly alike. A pair of shoes will exhibit characteristics when worn, unlike any other—so if those shoes leave a print impression at a crime scene and they are later found in the suspect’s closet, that leaves them open for an individual characteristic.

Differentiating class characteristics, on the other hand, could be the type of bullet that came from a gun. The caliber matched to a gun could make for a possible murder weapon. A found .38 caliber bullet means the weapon size is the same, so a .38 caliber bullet differentiates it from a shotgun.

Experts thought the forensic evidence in Anthony's car would be pivotal evidence for the murder trial. The car tested positive for chloroform and human decomposition and a strand of Caylee's hair was found in the car's trunk. Also, a cadaver dog, Gerus,—trained to find human remains—alerted on Casey Anthony’s car, a Pontiac Sunfire, and his handler testified to that occurrence.

Forensic Air Testing
Today we will talk briefly about the air testing in the car trunk. The forensic community has been using air tests for a long time. The science of chemical detection is forensic toxicology and is a means to separate and analyze chemical substances. The best example of common testing is when law enforcement uses a Breathalyzer to determine the blood alcohol content in a drunk driver for example.

The Smell of Decomp
"Once you smell it, you will never forget it." This comment and others comes from a site that has anecdotal comments from police and others whom have all smelled death. Human decomposition is a permeating smell and is often said as “hard to describe” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t distinctive. When Dr. Arpad Vass went on the stand to testify about the air samples taken from Casey Anthony’s car, I assumed that evidence was more than compelling. He spent a lot of time explaining his expertise in research about the smell of human decomposition. Vass works at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee where he analyzes the odor of death by working with cadavers at a 3-acre body farm, specifically used to study death and decomposition.

According to an ABC news report, "He [Vass] is essentially working towards finding a signature for human decomposition that will lead to the creation of an electronic detector that does the work of a cadaver dog. His research is already being used by the FBI to create a database of the chemical compounds found in human decomposition."

Vass said that the air samples taken and preserved in a can from the trunk of Casey Anthony's car had an abundance of chloroform, a sign of human decomposition and a chemical that also can be used to commit murder.

"I essentially jumped back a foot or two… I was shocked that that little itty bitty can could have that much odor associated with it… I would recognize it as human decomposition," Vass told jurors.

The Body in Death

"After we die and the bacteria proliferate in our body and start breaking down our muscles and our fat and organs, vapors, gases, are formed with beautiful names like cadaverine and putrescine that are a particular structure that are easily picked up in the toxicology lab if they’re collected from the area, the air that the body was in," said respected forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden. "If there was a dead body in the trunk of the car and they collected the air sample, they should be able to find those chemicals."

Entomology Report
In addition, flies and fly larvae found in the trunk of Casey Anthony's Pontiac suggest that the body had been decaying there for three to five days, according to testimony by an insect expert. The entomologist believed that Caylee's body had already undergone a brief period of decomposition before it was put into the trunk, and he cited the presence of a gnat-like fly that appears only after a body has started to decompose. This testimony rebutted defense claim that bad smells people reported could have come from garbage, but it turns out the same type of fly is not attracted to household trash.

New Science Questions
Dr. Lawrence Kobilinsky, head of the Forensic Sciences Department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told TIME. "It's what the state calls 'state of the art.' It's what I call 'not ready for prime time… It's not junk science, but it never should be brought into a courtroom at this stage.”

I disagree. Most cases today are decided on circumstantial evidence. There was enough forensic evidence—dueling experts or not—to come to the correct assumption and connect the dots. Casey Anthony's car was a crime scene. And I think the jury just wasn’t listening and strained (and failed) to understand the principle of reasonable doubt. What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this very informative article. I wish the jury could have been instructed in these principles. It all seems to have gone right over their heads... amazingly.

Boycottkc said...

I have a science background and closely followed the trial. I agree...this is not junk science at all - air sampling and GC/MS is used daily in science labs. But it is clear it was well over the jurors heads. I think they didn't understand the science so they disregarded it; especially the chloroform testing. All three chloroform tests yielded different results; but they are consistent with the type of tests that were performed (one air sample from a sealed container...more concentrated; one air sample direct from the trunk that was open and "aired"-less concentrated; and the test of the carpet sample itself). Thanks for the article.

Anonymous said...

The analogy of the breathalyzer is such a great point. It absolutely shows and proves that forensic air analysis has been around for a long time. I don't know if it would have mattered though, because it's apparent to me that despite how clearly and organized the Prosecution's case was, these jurors weren't intelligent enough to make the connection. The perfect storm of dumbness.

FRG said...

Mrs. Campbell,

Thank you for the great article! Add me on your list of upset people.

Jurors failed miserably for not connecting the dots! Prosecutors Mrs. Burdick and Mr. Ashton did such a wonderful job! I watched at least 90% of the trial, and it never occurred to me the verdict would be this. Can you believe I am still in shock?

When juros started to appear on National Media spewing their "theories" of GA, then I was sure that they bought JB's "opening statements" and from there they didn't seem to have watched the same trial I did.

Opening statements are "not evidence"!

Where is their "common sense"?

What about "jury instructions"... did they listen to it when HHJP read to them?

Whaty about following the laws?

Jurors are now saying they could not convict her to DP if there was no "cause of death"... now, let's see... the State didn't have to prove "motive" nor they had to be discussing "penalty phase"... it was the "guilt phase"!!!

What's wrong with them?

They claim the State didn't have evidence to convict her... did I hear that right?

I could go on and on. What these jurors did is "beyond comprehensible"!

KC was even acquitted of child aggravated abuse... so it shows these people have no idea of what mothers' obligations are. Geesh!

I would like to say something I found it outrageous in this trial... "opening statements" by the defense were not backed up by the defense and in my opinion it should not be allowed because I believe that's what the jurors kept in mind and could not past the "sexual abuse" never proved by the way.

Jurors failed and I am not apologetic about it.

Caylee didn't have her justice!

Thank you for allowing me to vent. LOL

Anonymous said...

Despite Judge Perry's admonitions regarding facial expressions, reactions and demeanor allowed in court, the defendant's motherly, "compassionate" (in her words) attorney and she were allowed to carry on throughout the trial. The performance took place directly in front of the jurors and seemed to set up a pattern for the need to protect KC, (not to mention the lowered chair). Almost as if: "how dare they hurt such an amazing mother's feelings by speaking of such things." Quite a persuasive technique?
Questions: 1) Are defendants and their legal rep's usually able to skirt the rules that apply to the rest of the courtroom? And 2) What effect might these repetitive, well-cued and timed emotional displays have had on the jurors?
Is it possible they unwittingly identified with Ms. Sims? KC? Did they connect their dots (abusive father, crazy family, acting-out, not her fault, grieves differently) ? (Obviously!) Were they distracted by the drama rather than forensic details, leading juror #3 to later proclaim a bit too emphatically that she was not emotionally involved. Is it possible the physical "petting" of the defendant was more powerful than tiresome evidence and testimony?

Anonymous said...

Appreciate your helpful article. I thought the same as you did, but not being in your area of expertise it was great to have your confirmation. This jury was particularily stupid, lazy and odd. Mason years ago, when interviewed made 3 interesting points. The first time when Casey was in prison and Caylee's body still missing, he said the prosecution are too keen with too little and he'd love to be doing that case. The day Caylee's remains were found Mason's opinion was Casey now would get a life sentence. Very damnning from a confident defender. When asked about would he, if defending that case, insist on jurists that don't know hardly anything about the case, Mason had reservations. He explained I wouldn't really want that, as those types who know nothing much of such a case are rather strange types. Not really part of the mainstream.
If a person has common sense, prepared to listen, evaluate evidence intelligently, properly understands their task, concepts associated with the trial process, has personal ethics and integrity it is possible to make the correct finding based on evidence put forth in the trial. That can be done impartialy and would not be affected by prior knowledge or any ensuing prior views regarding guilt.
The jury ought to have to pass a mini test that makes them reflect what do they understand of these concepts used in a trial. They should be made aware, that whatever conclusion they come up with are ones they can in full sentences with details, explain all aspects of how they made decisions on various points. They had a simple clear explanation by the medical examiner Jan that made it clear no one yet has not called 911 on a drowned child. Then all the other factors in Caylee's body being found that are supported by statistics that indicate murder as the only conclusion.
There are then numerous tapes of Casey that indicate how cold, innapropriate, detatched and even resentful she is in regard to Caylee. Therefore if the jury were morons as more complex science goes, they had that simple clear firmly cleary stated, even repeated for them to grasp. Plus Ashtons brilliant summation in his final rebuttal.They were exceptionally lazy , not listening or thinking as well as extremely stupid. They only managed "lied to the police."
As Mason said , the out of touch are odd, so they went for their exciting soap opera that Baez put on for them. I do credit Baez's rough background, street smarts he'd have needed to survive to know how to read probably any type of very common folk in their attributes in detail. He's the type who then knows what risk they can be for any involvement so he can never be caught off gaurd plus it means you know how to manage /manipulate them when needed.

A Voice of Sanity said...

When this case began I assumed that the prosecution could make a case for improper disposal of human remains. They failed to even charge her with that BUT they went ahead and tried to prove it nonetheless and then use the logical fallacy "post hoc ergo propter hoc" to prove homicide. Ironically Baez defended her, not against murder but against improper disposal of human remains and did it successfully!

The only 'evidence' which went to homicide was the alleged chloroform, a particularly stupid argument for several reasons. The main reason is that chloroform should only be introduced into a trial if a bottle of it is brought into court in a box labelled 'ACME CORP' carried by a man in a Wile E. Coyote suit. It is the 'go-to' idea of the stupid when asked for an anesthetic agent - but is, in fact, difficult to obtain or use.

At the end of the prosecution CIC I came to the realization that Anthony was, in fact, innocent. Sadly this is clearly of no interest to the lynch mob which has sickeningly formed around this case.

In the USA almost five children die every day as a result of child abuse. More than three out of four are under the age of 4. Where are their mobs? There isn't even money to protect them all. What happened to Rilya Wilson?

Anonymous said...

"The only 'evidence' which went to homicide was the alleged chloroform..."

A Voice of Sanity, along with the jurors, you must have slept through all mentions of the three strips of duct tape during testimony and the presentation of photos of Caylee's skull. Are you, too, from Pinellas County, Florida?

Disappointed said...

The jurors made the right decision. The prosecutors offered the wrong charges. Period. As much as the jury wanted to find Casey Anthony guilty of murder, they didn't have a mens rea, an actus rea, or any evidence of how that child died. Without those things, how could anyone convict someone of murder?

Think about this: How can there NOT be a reasonable doubt of murder, when no one can say for sure how the child died, when the child died, or where the child died, much less who killed her, or if she was even killed at all?

All the prosecution could prove was that the child was dead, that Casey Anthony is a liar, and her family is a bunch of lunatics. It is apparent that they were counting on the emotions of the jury to override the law, and sadly, that strategy has worked before, to the detriment of our justice system. I am proud that it didn't work this time. No matter how strongly we "feel" that this woman killed her daughter, we don't want to go down the slippery slope of convicting on emotions.

I am very disturbed that this site, supposedly a bastion of criminology professionals, is not supporting a jury which had no choice but to acquit. It makes no difference that we all KNOW Casey Anthony "did something" to her child. In America we don't convict people without proof, and that proof must come from the state. The state failed in this case - the jurors did not. And yet they are in fear for their lives because many ignorant people have no clue how our justice system works, and people who supposedly do understand (such as the people on this very site) are not explaining it to them.

This is my first visit to this site. I was excited by the concept, but I am disappointed by the lack of legal understanding and the Nancy Grace-like mentality.

Anonymous said...

I have heard it said that a case is won or lost in voir dire. I had many concerns watching the voir dire process in this case, and my suspicions about these jurors eventually proved to be spot on. I think collectively they struggled with many issues during this trial. They seemed fascinated with Baez and were willing to accept his opening and closing statements as truth and INSTRUCTION ("If you don't have a cause of death, you cannot find someone guilty of murder"). They seemed to have trouble understanding the forensic evidence and even more difficulty wrapping their minds around the concept of reasonable doubt. But, ultimately, in my opinion, they lacked a rational understanding of Judge Perry's instructions. Listening to the foreman and juror #3, it was obvious that neither understood that inferences could be drawn from the evidence, and that connecting the dots was actually their job. So, instead of diligently deliberating as they meticulously analyzed the evidence, they dismissed most of it, and focused on George Anthony. All manner of doubt crept in, as did much speculation. In the end, quite simply, they got lost in the trees and could not see the forest.