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Why was Casey Anthony’s murder trial abruptly recessed?

The judge in the trial of Casey Anthony, accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter, mysteriously and abruptly recessed the case on Saturday morning saying only that “a legal issue has arisen.”

By Staff writer / June 25, 2011

Chief Judge Belvin Perry (L) confers with defense attorneys Cheney Mason (C) and Jose Baez (R) at the Orange County Courthouse during the trial of Casey Anthony in Orlando, Florida Saturday June 25. The session of Anthony's first-degree murder trial was scuttled by an unspecified "legal issue" announced by Perry.

Red Huber/Reuters

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The judge in the trial of Casey Anthony, the Florida woman accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter, mysteriously and abruptly recessed the case on Saturday morning saying only that “a legal issue has arisen.”

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The jury in the closely-watched trial was set to hear more than five hours of testimony on Saturday with potential witnesses already gathered in the hallway outside. But the jurors were never brought into the courtroom.

Instead, Chief Judge Belvin Perry made his surprise announcement after a flurry of activity with counsel for both the defense and the prosecution. He said the trial would be in recess until Monday at 8:30 a.m.

IN PICTURES: Key players in the Casey Anthony trial

Most of the discussions took place in the privacy of the judge’s chambers, but apparently with a court reporter present to maintain a legal record.

The unexplained action touched off immediate speculation – virtually all of it uninformed.

Some wondered whether a possible plea deal might be in the works. Other analysts suggested the judge’s abrupt move may have been triggered by fresh allegations of violations of a court order that expert witnesses must disclose the full substance of their testimony in reports due earlier this year or face exclusion from the trial.

The judge has already cited Defense Attorney Jose Baez for willfully violating that order. Judge Perry suggested a second violation would be dealt with harshly.

At the close of proceedings on Friday evening, the lawyers raised two issues that might have expanded overnight into a trial-delaying problem for the judge.

One involved William Rodriguez, a Defense Department employee and expert in forensic anthropology and taphonomy, the study of human decomposition.

Dr. Rodriguez began testifying for the defense last Saturday, but his testimony was interrupted after prosecutors objected that he had not submitted a detailed report outlining his testimony in accordance with the judge’s earlier ruling. Rather than exclude his testimony, the judge ordered that prosecutors be given an opportunity to question him under oath in their office to discover what he would likely tell the jury.

In the meantime, someone at the Department of Defense learned of Rodriguez’s potential testimony and contacted Assistant State Attorney Jeffrey Ashton, one of the prosecutors in the Anthony case. The official told Mr. Ashton that Rodriguez had failed to obtain authorization to testify at the trial as a defense witness and would be fired if he did so.

Rather than get him fired, Defense attorneys dropped Rodriguez from the witness list. But they raised questions to Judge Perry about the circumstances of the Defense Department contact with Ashton. They also questioned why Ashton asked for, and received, an additional 24 hours to review Rodriguez’s deposition after he already knew Rodriguez was unlikely to testify.

The issue is potentially serious because any contacts made on behalf of the state attorney’s office with the intention of preventing Rodriguez from returning to the witness stand could amount to a form of witness tampering.

“I did not solicit this contact [with the Defense Department],” Ashton told the judge on Friday. “[The DOD official] informed me that they learned of Rodriguez’s testimony on television.”

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