A police dog trained to locate dead bodies by their smell signaled positively to his handler when led near the car belonging to a Florida mother accused of killing her two-year-old daughter, jurors in an Orlando murder trial were told Tuesday.
Jason Forgey, a K-9 officer with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, said his dog stood on his hind legs and put his head and paws into the open trunk of Casey Anthony’s 1998 Pontiac Sunfire. The dog then lay down on the ground near the car’s right tail light and made eye contact with Deputy Forgey.
The dog had been trained to take those precise actions whenever he detected the odor of a human cadaver.
The testimony came in the third week of the expected six-week trial of Ms. Anthony on charges that she murdered her daughter, Caylee, in June 2008 and then lied about the toddler’s disappearance. The child’s remains were discovered in December 2008 in a wooded area near the family’s home.
Defense lawyers say Caylee died in a swimming pool accident and that Anthony and her father George participated in a cover-up, making the death look like a murder-kidnapping.
If convicted of murder, Anthony could face the death penalty.
Prosecutors say Anthony hid the child’s body in the trunk of her car for a period of time. No DNA evidence was recovered from the car. Investigators found a single hair consistent with Caylee’s hair that showed signs of human decomposition. In addition, investigators noticed a strong odor in the trunk.
Several witnesses – including Forgey – have testified that the odor was the distinctive stench of a dead body.
The state attorney’s office on Monday called a research scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Dr. Arpad Vass, to testify about tests he performed on air samples taken from the car trunk. He said the odor was consistent with chemicals released during human decomposition.
The dog testimony is aimed at bolstering Dr. Vass’s research findings.
The use of the dog’s actions as evidence in a murder trial is unusual. Such dogs are primarily used to find dead bodies at the beginning of an investigation. When dogs are used to search for bodies, a false alert might mean some extra digging for investigators. But when a dog is used in a first-degree murder trial, a false alert could send the wrong person to death row.
Defense attorney Jose Baez tried to keep the testimony about the dog out of the trial. Chief Judge Belvin Perry ruled that the jurors could decide for themselves whether to credit testimony about the dog’s actions as reliable evidence.
Mr. Baez attempted to undercut Forgey’s testimony by suggesting there is no way to know for sure whether the dog was reacting to the lingering smell of a corpse or to something entirely different.
Forgey testified that after his dog “alerted” at the car, he was asked to bring the dog to Anthony’s home. The dog alerted again, at a spot in the backyard near Caylee’s playhouse and sandbox. Investigators probed the area and did some digging but found nothing. When the dog returned to the area the next day, he did not alert.
The deputy testified that he believes the dog alerted the first day to some residue on the surface of the lawn. He said he suspected that the residue was moved or diminished by scraping and probing by investigators.
“I believe that is exactly what happened,” he told the jury. “That’s why we didn’t get any [alert] the next day.”
“You are just speculating,” Baez said during cross-examination. “When trying to interpret what a dog is doing or saying is speculation.”
Forgey responded that every time his dog has alerted to the presence of a dead body, he’s found a dead body. There’s been only one exception, the deputy said, the Caylee Anthony case.