Casey Anthony trial: Can duct tape be a murder weapon?

Prosecutors argue that Casey Anthony killed her daughter by suffocating her with duct tape. But an expert said he could not confirm that duct tape had anything to do with the death.

Joe Burbank/AP
Casey Anthony waits in the courtroom before the start of her trial at the Orange County Courthouse Friday in Orlando, Fla.

A forensic anthropologist testified in an Orlando, Fla., murder trial on Friday that a piece of duct tape found near a toddler’s skull was large enough to simultaneously cover the girl’s mouth and nose, bolstering a prosecution theory that duct tape was the murder weapon used by Casey Anthony to kill her 2-year-old daughter.

On cross examination, however, the same expert, Michael Warren of the University of Florida, said he did not know whether the duct tape actually caused the toddler’s death.

“You don’t know if that duct tape had anything to do with the disposal [of the body] or the death,” defense attorney Jose Baez asked.

“True,” Dr. Warren responded.

The testimony came in the third week of the trial of Ms. Anthony, who is charged with first-degree murder for allegedly killing her daughter, Caylee, and then leaving the body in a wooded area a short walk from the family’s home.

During Warren’s testimony, prosecutors played a short video that Warren had prepared for the jury. The professor superimposed a photograph of Caylee’s face over the image of her recovered skull, and then positioned a proportioned section of duct tape over her face.

The video was played to demonstrate that the duct tape could have been used to suffocate Caylee.

Defense calls video 'highly prejudicial'

Defense attorney Mr. Baez objected to the video presentation before it was played, calling it “highly prejudicial” to his client. He later filed a motion for a mistrial after the jury was dismissed for the day.

Judge Belvin Perry defended his decision to allow the jury to see the graphic video. The judge said Warren had testified that duct tape over the nose and mouth was only one possible scenario.

“But that is not outweighed by seeing this beautiful child with her face and skull in the background [of the video],” Baez said. “This inflamed the jury. He could have given that opinion without the video.”

Assistant State Attorney Jeffrey Ashton also defended showing the video. “This was the murder weapon, essentially,” he said.

“The testimony from the expert witness is that at some point that beautiful child did have duct tape over her face – the nose, the mouth, one or both,” Mr. Ashton said.

Judge Perry denied the motion for a mistrial.

Like several other major pieces of evidence introduced during the trial, the duct tape raised expectations among trial observers that the growing mystery surrounding Caylee’s death might be soon be solved. But by the end of the day, the best prosecutors could offer was an expert witness’s speculative opinion that duct tape could have caused Caylee’s death.

Earlier, Orange County Medical Examiner Jan Garavaglia, told the jury that based on an examination of Caylee’s skeletal remains and all other available evidence that she had concluded that the case was a homicide – an intentional killing. But she added that she, as medical examiner, was unable to uncover enough evidence to identify the means used to kill Caylee.

The duct tape is significant in the trial because it was found partly attached to Caylee’s skull and hair. The tape was sent to the FBI’s forensic laboratory to examine for possible fingerprints. But those tests came back negative.

Delay in discovery

Part of the problem is that Caylee had disappeared in mid-June 2008 and her remains were not discovered until Dec. 11, 2008. By that time, the body had been reduced to a skeleton and any associated evidence had been degraded or destroyed by weather.

The fact that duct tape was recovered near Caylee’s skull and was still affixed to some hair strongly suggests that it was attached at some point to her face, experts say. But there is no proof that it was attached in such a way to block both her nose and mouth. In addition, there is no proof of whether it was affixed to her face after she was already dead.

As Perry has pointed out to the jury, the jurors are entitled to decide whether expert opinions about the evidence are reliable or not. The burden of proof is that the prosecution establish evidence of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, not beyond and to the exclusion of any doubt.

The duct tape found with the skull is also important to the prosecution’s case because investigators say it is the same brand of duct tape used in the Anthony home. Pieces of the same brand of tape were on a pair of gas cans that Ms. Anthony borrowed when she ran out of gas shortly after Caylee’s disappearance.

Duct tape may also play a role during the defense case.

Ms. Anthony has pleaded not guilty. Her lawyer says Caylee died accidentally in the family swimming pool and that Ms. Anthony’s, father, George, helped cover up the death by making it look like a kidnapping and murder. Baez has suggested that the duct tape may lead back to Ms. Anthony’s father.

The trial is expected to continue Saturday morning.

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