Casey Anthony trial: Was speculation a factor in jury deliberations?

Casey Anthony trial nears its end as jury announces it has reached a verdict. But it remains unclear how the panel of five men and seven women approached their duty, and whether speculation was a factor.

Red Huber/AP
Casey Anthony looks down after the rebuttal testimony is over, ending the presentation of evidence in her murder trial at the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando, Fla., Friday, July 1, 2011.

With the jury's arrival at a verdict Tuesday, its second day of deliberations in the Casey Anthony murder trial, it was unclear how the panel of five men and seven women had approached their responsibility as jurors.

Although Chief Judge Belvin Perry had given them instructions on the law to guide them through the process, it was ultimately up to the five men and seven women deliberating privately to decide whether the state had proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

But what is reasonable doubt? More precisely, if jurors are asked to connect the dots in an alleged murder, how close together must those dots be to overcome reasonable doubt?

In her closing argument on Monday, Assistant State Attorney Linda Burdick urged the jurors to “look at the big picture.”

“My biggest fear is that common sense will be lost in all the rhetoric of the case,” she said, “that you won’t step back and take a look at the evidence as a whole.”

In contrast, Defense Attorney Jose Baez wanted the jurors to look closely at each piece of evidence and examine whether there was proof of a connection between the evidence and his client.

Mr. Baez said his biggest fear was that the deep emotions and anger swirling throughout the case might influence the jurors to vote against Ms. Anthony on close questions.

“Don’t speculate,” Baez said. “Don’t guess. It has to be proven to you beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt.”

He added: “There should be no mystery before you now. If you have questions, then it was not proved.”

Prosecutors charge that Ms. Anthony engaged in the premeditated murder of her two-year-old daughter by drugging her with chloroform and then pressing three pieces of duct tape over her mouth and nose to suffocate her. They are seeking the death penalty.

The defense argues that Ms. Anthony’s daughter, Caylee, drowned accidentally in the family’s swimming pool.

The trial has attracted an unusually devoted following of amateur sleuths and kitchen-table psychologists drawn into the deepening mystery surrounding the case.

Spectators lined up for hours outside the courthouse for a chance to watch a portion of the trial. Others tuned into television coverage or watched live video feeds from the courtroom. Even the smallest aspects of the case are the subject to extensive internet prognostication.

Among theories discussed by many trial-watchers is the idea that perhaps Casey Anthony was using chloroform to drug her daughter and left the toddler in the trunk of her car so she could go spend the night with her boyfriend.

The problem with this scenario from the perspective of a capital murder trial is that there is no evidence supporting it. But that didn’t stop Assistant State Attorney Jeff Ashton from informing the jurors about it in his closing statement.

In his closing on Monday, Mr. Ashton appeared to encourage members of the jury to speculate about the how the alleged murder was committed and they were free to rely on that speculation in reaching a verdict.

“You can reconstruct these events any way you want,” he told the jury.

“You can postulate any number of different hypothesizes in this case,” Ashton added. “Some might say, well, Casey put the duct tape on Caylee to keep her quiet. Maybe she was being loud. Maybe she put it on too tight and Caylee died by accident.”

The prosecutor continued: “I would submit [that is] not really consistent with what we have here, but someone could think that.” Ashton said: “The reason I bring this out is because if that is what YOU think happened, that is felony murder as the court will define it for you.”

An intentional act that could reasonably be expected to result in a physical injury to a child and results in the child’s death is felony murder, Ashton said. “If that is something that you are thinking about,” he told the jurors, “I want you to know that’s also first degree murder.”

As he said it, Baez objected. Chief Judge Perry overruled the objection.

Ashton then raised the scenario popular among many bloggers. “Or if you choose to believe that she used chloroform to sedate Caylee so that she could spend time with her boyfriend – as bizarre as that seems. Let’s say she used chloroform in the trunk of the car to sedate Caylee so she could go have a good time with Tony on [June] 16th and that Caylee accidentally died,” Ashton said. “It is still first degree murder.”

Ashton summed up his point and repeated it for the jury. “Regardless of how you put these facts together… and again, I submit that the one that makes the most sense is that this is premeditated, because it is,” he said. “But any way you slice it, any way you put it together, Casey Anthony is guilty of murder in the first degree in this case.”

Prosecutors are hoping the jury focuses on Ms. Anthony’s actions during the 31 days following Caylee’s death. During that time, Casey repeatedly lied to her mother and friends about Caylee’s whereabouts, saying she was with a fictional baby sitter. When police were called and began a missing persons investigation, Casey continued to tell police that Caylee was alive and that she had been kidnapped by the baby sitter.

Those actions delayed what would become a murder investigation. It is strong circumstantial evidence that Casey was involved in or had knowledge of Caylee’s death. But it does not prove that she killed her daughter using chloroform and duct tape. And it does not necessarily prove that the toddler’s death wasn’t an accident. These are questions the jury will decide.

Prosecutors argue that the murder weapon was three pieces of duct tape that were found with Caylee’s skeletal remains six months after her disappearance. The body had been stuffed into a laundry bag and two black plastic garbage bags.

The duct tape was the same distinctive brand of tape used in the Anthony home. But an FBI analysis of the tape revealed no fingerprints and only a partial DNA reading. The DNA was not sufficient to identify an individual, but it was enough to exclude both Casey and Caylee as being the source.

The most significant dispute over the duct tape is whether it was positioned over the mouth and nose, causing suffocation. The prosecution says the presence of three strips is proof that it was wide enough to kill the child. The defense says there is no evidence the tape covered both the nose and mouth. Defense lawyers add that there is no direct evidence that the tape was applied to the child’s face by her mother.

Orange County Medical Examiner Dr. Jan Garavaglia issued a report classifying Caylee’s death as a homicide, but said she was unable to determine the means used to kill the toddler. “The only possible objects with the body – although I don’t know that they caused death and I am not speculating that they caused death – would be that duct tape was over the mouth and nose,” she testified. “That’s a possibility.”

Others testified that because Caylee’s remains had completely decomposed, there was no way to accurately determine the precise location of the duct tape if it was applied to her face.

The other key evidentiary issue in the case relates to traces of chloroform detected in the trunk of Casey Anthony’s car by a research scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Prosecutors say the findings support their theory that chloroform was used in concert with duct tape to kill Caylee.

“I would submit to you there has been absolutely no evidence to explain where it came from or why,” Ashton told the jury in his closing argument.

Baez objected to the comment because it might suggest to the jury that the defense had an obligation to prove Casey was innocent. Judge Perry overruled the objection.

A defense expert in chemical analysis testified that chloroform is present in many household items, including bleach, and could have been in the trunk from a common source unrelated to murder or child abuse.

Prosecutors say someone conducted 84 internet searches on the Anthony’s home computer for the words “chloroform,” and “how to make chloroform.” Defense lawyers say the state’s computer analysis was wrong and that only one search for chloroform was conducted compared to Casey’s 84 visits to talk to friends on My Space.

Baez said the computer search was done for curiosity because Casey’s boyfriend had posted a gag photo on his My Space page showing a man and woman in a romantic restaurant with the caption: “Win her over with chloroform.”

“If you don’t know what chloroform is and your boyfriend is posting things like that on his My Space page it is not unreasonable for a young woman to research something like that,” Baez told the jury.

Defense lawyers said investigators never recovered any chemicals, mixing materials, or receipts related to the making of chloroform.

In addition, Caylee’s remains were tested for the presence of chloroform and other drugs and no toxic substances were detected.

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