Prosecutors and defense counsel in the trial of a Florida woman accused of killing her two-year-old daughter are waging a running battle over how best to describe a plastic bag of refuse found in the trunk of the mother’s car.
The state attorneys office insists that it be referred to as “trash.” Defense lawyers counter that the contents of the white plastic bag were “garbage.”
Prosecutors had called Dr. Neal Haskell, a forensic entomologist, to testify about maggots found on a wad of paper towels in the white plastic bag that had been left in the trunk of Ms. Anthony’s car. Dr. Haskell’s expertise is helping the authorities identify the time of death based on which kinds of insects are breeding and feeding on the decomposing remains of a victim.
He told the jury that as the chemical composition of a decomposing body changes, the cadre of insects attracted to the corpse changes as well. By knowing when those changes take place, an entomologist can establish a timeline that can help investigators solve a crime.
The state’s theory in the case is that Ms. Anthony killed her daughter, Caylee, and then hid her body in the trunk of the car before dumping the body in a wooded area not far from the family home.
Caylee was last seen alive on June 16, 2008. Her remains were discovered six months later on December 11.
Prosecutors build circumstantial case
Prosecutors have no direct evidence that Anthony harmed her daughter. Instead, they are working to build a circumstantial case linking the toddler’s decomposing body to her mother’s car.
Several witnesses have testified that in the summer of 2008 Casey Anthony’s car contained a strong odor that resembled the stench of a decomposing body.
This is where the distinction between trash and garbage becomes crucial. Defense lawyers say the stench in Anthony’s car was a result of her mistakenly leaving that plastic bag of “garbage” in her car trunk for several days in Florida’s hot summer sun.
Prosecutors counter that the stench is the lingering evidence of the mother’s crime against her daughter. A plastic bag of “trash” is incapable of producing such a strong and distinctive smell, they say.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that investigators found maggots and other insect activity on a wad of paper towels in the white plastic bag. Prosecutors have suggested that the paper towels may have been used to clean up fluid that had flowed from Caylee’s decomposing body while it was still in the car trunk.
Dr. Haskell was asked a hypothetical question that directly tracks the state’s theory in the case. If the body of a young child was stored in the trunk of a car for some time and then moved, would that fit with the insect activity he had found?
“Absolutely,” Haskell testified.
He said based on the type of insects he’d found in the paper towels he estimated the body would have been in the car trunk three to five days.
On cross-examination, Defense Attorney Jose Baez challenged Haskell’s assumption that whatever was on the paper towels that attracted the insects must have come from human decomposition. Wouldn’t left-overs from a restaurant forgotten in a hot car attract the same flies, Mr. Baez asked.
Not that quantity, Haskell said.
That’s when Assistant State Attorney Jeffrey Ashton asked Haskell the difference between trash and garbage.
“To my thinking garbage is primarily decomposing organic material,” he said, “versus trash which is any inorganic stuff you are throwing out.”
Haskell said the insects he studies are searching for decomposing organic material, both animal and plant, to “colonize and try to raise their kids in it.”
He said the white plastic bag contained trash – a collection of inorganic materials that were not decomposing.
“You weren’t present when they collected the trash or garbage,” Baez asked.
“So you wouldn’t know if it was soaking-wet with organic material or not,” Baez said.
“There’s nothing to suggest it was,” Haskell testified.
Was evidence inadvertently destroyed?
Baez had earlier criticized crime scene investigator Gerardo Bloise for placing the material from the white bag in a drier for two days before storing the dried contents in the evidence room.
In testimony on Tuesday, Mr. Bloise said he took inventory of the contents before drying them. His inventory does not list items of garbage except perhaps an empty pizza box, an empty cheese wrapper, and an empty frozen dinner carton.
He testified that the white bag smelled like “trash,” but had a different odor than Anthony’s car. He said it was department protocol to place such items in an evidence drier.
“You had no idea the evidence would be altered,” Baez asked.
“No,” he said.
The routine drying may have undercut the state’s investigation as much as defense efforts.
Had they been preserved as found and immediately tested, the maggot-covered paper towels might have provided a direct link between Caylee’s dead body and her mother.
Haskell said it is possible to retrieve human host DNA from lice, maggots, and even bed bugs. It is unclear whether the procedure was attempted given the state of the evidence.
Casey Anthony is charged with first-degree murder. If convicted she faces a possible death sentence.
She has pleaded not guilty. Defense attorneys say Caylee died in a swimming pool accident and that Casey Anthony and her father participated in a coverup of the death.
The trial is set to continue on Monday.