The case against Casey Anthony: The slam dunk that wasn’t

From the start the case against Casey Anthony lacked direct physical evidence tying the defendant to her daughter's death. And the prosecution's demeanor and tactics may have alienated the jury.

Red Huber/AP
Casey Anthony, center, is overcome with emotion following her acquittal of murder charges at the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando, Fla., on July 5. Anthony had been charged with killing her daughter, Caylee.

Casey Anthony’s acquittal in the death of her two-year-old daughter, Caylee, has sparked outrage and disbelief among critics across the country who blame the Florida jury for failing to endorse the prosecution’s case.

But the state’s capital murder case against Ms. Anthony was never the slam dunk many legal pundits seemed to suggest.

Despite a massive investigation and a seeming impressive array of forensics, prosecutors were unable during the month-long trial to present any direct, physical evidence tying Anthony to her daughter’s death.

Instead, prosecutors relied on overwhelming evidence that the mother repeatedly lied to family, friends, and the police about the whereabouts of her missing daughter. Instead of grieving or hiding, Anthony spent nights with her boyfriend, entered a “hot body” contest at a night club, went on shopping excursions, and got a tattoo that proclaimed: “Bella Vita,” beautiful life in Italian.

These activities angered many of those who followed the case from investigation through the trial. How could a mother with a missing child – or a child that had recently died – behave that way?

While outrage over Anthony’s lies and other behavior was certain to win a conviction in the court of public opinion, the rules and requirements in a court of law are far more demanding.

A gruesome theory

At trial, prosecutors advanced a gruesome theory that Anthony drugged her daughter with chloroform and then suffocated her by applying duct tape over her mouth and nose. The murder weapon: duct tape.

Chloroform was a necessary part of the theory, presumably, because the pieces of duct tape recovered with the remains were only six to eight inches long. If Caylee was conscious and her hands free, she may have been able to reach up and pull the tape off her face.

The problem with the state’s case was that there was no physical evidence that Ms. Anthony pressed the tape against her daughter’s face. Nor was there evidence that the tape covered both Caylee’s mouth and nose. If the tape did not cover both the mouth and nose, it could not be the murder weapon proclaimed by prosecutors.

Prosecutors and the Orange County Medical Examiner said there was no reason duct tape would be applied to a child’s face other than to kill the child. That was a logical conclusion, but it still didn’t prove how the three pieces of duct tape found near Caylee got there, and why.

After Caylee was killed on June 16, 2008, prosecutors alleged, Anthony hid her body for several days in the trunk of her car, and then dumped the body in a wooded area a quarter-mile from the Anthony family home. The remains were not recovered until Dec. 11, 2008.

‘Very difficult to prove’

The state attorney for Orange County, Lawson Lamar, characterized the investigation and prosecution of Anthony as a “dry bones case, very, very difficult to prove.”

In a statement after the verdict Tuesday he added: “The condition of the remains worked to our significant disadvantage.”

But some of those disadvantages were created by the investigators themselves.

Caylee’s remains could have been recovered and analyzed as early as Aug. 11, 2008 – four months sooner than the actual discovery and only two months after her death – had police simply responded to a 911 report of a small skull in a wooded area close to the Anthony home. The caller, Roy Kronk, contacted police each day for three consecutive days before giving up.

For reasons that remain unexplained, Mr. Kronk waited four more months before he returned to the scene, found the skull again, and called the authorities. Had police responded to Kronk’s original call, there might have been more of Caylee’s remains to analyze.

More importantly, the duct tape discovered with Caylee’s remains would have been only two months old in August (rather than six months old in December), significantly increasing the opportunity to detect the fingerprints and DNA of whoever handled the duct tape.

Partial DNA profile

Even after six months in the swampy woods, forensic analysts at the FBI were able to detect a partial DNA profile on the tape. But who did it belong to? It did not match Caylee, and it excluded her mother, Casey.

An FBI forensic specialist considered the results inconclusive, but a Dutch expert and pioneer in locating tiny amounts of DNA testified that it might be possible to lift a more telling profile from the weathered duct tape through enhanced testing common in Europe. No enhanced test was ever conducted.

An additional area that could have yielded firm scientific evidence linking the mother to the dead child involved a wad of paper towels found in a bag of trash in Anthony’s car. The paper towels were infested with maggots. Prosecutors alleged that the paper towels had been used to clean up fluid from Caylee’s decomposing body.

Entomologists testified that DNA could be extracted from the maggots to prove they’d been feeding on Caylee’s remains. The Dutch DNA expert said if undigested DNA could be extracted from the maggots, it might provide enough information for a positive match. For reasons not explained, those tests were never done.

The prosecutors appeared to be trying to make up for their lack of direct evidence by presenting a mountain of tangential forensic evidence – including controversial evidence.

Trial's many firsts

The trial saw many firsts. It was the first time in an American court that a jury heard evidence from a research scientist who tested a strong odor in Anthony’s car and said it was consistent with chemicals released during human decomposition. Other experts in forensics said the test was still a research project and not reliable enough for use in a death penalty case.

The jury also heard testimony from the handler of a cadaver dog who said his dog signaled to him that there might have been a body in Anthony’s car. Such testimony is unusual because there is no opportunity to cross-examine a dog.

In addition to a lack of direct physical evidence, the prosecution may have hurt its case through the extremely aggressive trial tactics of Assistant State Attorney Jeff Ashton, one of three prosecutors in the trial.

Mr. Ashton has acquired near-cult status by those urging justice on behalf of Caylee. Many legal analysts praised his take-no-prisoners cross-examinations during the trial. But it is unclear how these actions were viewed by members of the jury.

A search for truth?

A frequently repeated cliché is that the best trials are those devoted to a search for truth rather than merely an attempt to win a conviction or secure an acquittal. By that measure, the Casey Anthony murder trial fell far short.

It is possible that Ashton alienated members of the jury by being too aggressive with witnesses, by frequently interrupting the defense case, and by laughing in disbelief during defense attorney Jose Baez’s closing argument.

Ashton was openly laughing and rolling his eyes during a particularly impassioned section of Mr. Baez’s closing argument. When Baez reacted in anger and directed the jury’s attention toward “this laughing guy right here,” Chief Judge Belvin Perry responded by threatening to expel BOTH lawyers from the rest of the trial.

The incident came three days after Judge Perry summarily sentenced a 28-year-old public spectator at the trial to spend six days in jail and pay $623 for gesturing briefly and somewhat covertly with his middle finger in the direction of Ashton.

“Young man, you realize the taxpayers of the State of Florida have expended a great deal of money putting on this trial and that your actions could have jeopardized all the work the attorneys have done in this case,” Judge Perry lectured the man after the jury had been ushered from the courtroom.

It is unclear whether the jury saw the brief gesture by the spectator. But there is no doubt that the jury saw the prosecutor laughing and, in essence, ridiculing the defense case at a critical point in the trial immediately before deliberations were set to begin.

The only juror to speak out so far, alternate Russ Huekler, said prosecutors did not meet their burden of proof. In short, they did not present enough convincing evidence, he said.

Instead of a cold-blooded murder mandating a death sentence, he said, Caylee’s death was most likely an accident.

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