Forensic Evidence (Entomology) and the Casey Anthony Case
Insect Evidence in The Casey Anthony Trial
Here is a real-life example of how insect-based evidence could be used to help convict an alleged murderer--with an exploration of the entomological files in the Casey Anthony case.
The trial is over, the verdict is out, but of all the details the jury was bombarded with, the role of the scuttle and blow fly was critical. One could even argue that, along with the other forensic evidence gathered by prosecutors, it could, and possibly should, have been condemning.
Unfortunately for criminals like Casey (found guilty of multiple counts of lying), bugs always speak the truth. However, if such criminals are lucky, juries may ignore forensics or dismiss clues that maggots and flies leave behind.
Sometimes this can be because of a lack of understanding or unfamiliarity with the use of insects for investigative purposes. The fact remains that, at times, perpetrators get away with murder despite seemingly sound evidence.
Was that the case here, did Casey kill Caylee? Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but there is only one set of entomological facts.
The jury found the following details either questionable or inconclusive. Or they may have just ignored or forgotten about them. Here is an overview of what the prosecution presented in court as part of their case. Based on the following facts, you can come to your own conclusions.
What we Indisputably Know
- Caylee, Casey’s 2-year-old daughter, was last seen alive on June 16th, 2008.
- Casey’s car, a Pontiac Sunbird, was abandoned at Amscot on June 27th and impounded on June 30th.
- Skeletal remains of Caylee were found December 11th.
The Critical Bugs in Play
Entomological experts analyzed the trunk of Casey's Sunbird, as well as the contents of a white plastic bag found in it. They discovered a type of fly, the scuttle/coffin fly, to be present. There was also a blowfly leg.
Several other bugs were identified in addition to these; however, the two mentioned here are the most important in determining what happened to Caylee and when following her death.
Linking a Mother to her Daughter’s Disappearance
The first question is whether or not Casey’s car was a crime scene. While decaying matter was present in the trunk, it could have originated from a deceased animal instead of a person.
However, a very specific type of scuttle fly was present. While it does also infest animal remains, it is the most common fly seen upon human corpses that have decayed considerably.
As further support of the body in the trunk theory, when Caylee's skeleton was found in December, it harbored less than 100 blowfly specimens. This is highly unusual for a body left out in the open. Blowflies typically land on a body before most other insects and reproduce rapidly, so there should have been a lot more of them. That is, unless they couldn't access the body for some reason (because it was in the trunk, for example).
Not inarguably conclusive on its own, this entomological evidence strengthens the case against Casey Anthony.
The prosecution also used odor analyzing technology on Casey's car. They found both chloroform (the substance Casey allegedly used to knock out her daughter) and some of the 400 chemicals emitted by dead human bodies. Hair was present with darkened bands, suggesting it originated from a deceased person and not a living individual, and cadaver dogs hit on the Pontiac’s trunk in July.
Suddenly, given enough supporting evidence, the possibility Caylee was stored in the back of Casey’s car becomes probable, if not highly likely.
Cleaned in the Dead of Night, But Why?
As blowflies are relatively large, their entry into a closed trunk would be impossible. Because only one blowfly leg was found in the Pontiac's trunk, the body was most likely placed in the trunk soon after death (before the flies could colonize it) and left there without being accessed again (that is, until its disposal).
Further, this disposal probably occurred after dark, or there would have been more blowfly specimens found that flew in as soon as the trunk was opened. They would have had good opportunity to gain entry, as the plastic bag left in the trunk contained multiple paper towels soiled with decaying fluids. This suggests someone attempted a clean-up which would have taken at least a few minutes.
Why clean a car in pitch blackness? And why do such a hasty, incomplete job that the trunk still reeked afterward? Why not dispose of the materials used in the cleanup attempt? Did Casey have something to hide, or is she just inept at disinfecting residual roadkill? So inept, that she decided just to abandon her still-dirty car instead of doing a better job at cleaning it?
Establishing a Timeline
What else does the presence of flies indicate?
One type of scuttle fly from the trunk, known as the coffin fly, derives its name from its ability to dig up to six feet underground and infest buried remains within graveyards. The size of a gnat, it is also capable of invading spaces using the tiniest of openings through which the larger blowfly cannot squeeze through.
Therefore, the scuttle fly could easily gain access to a body placed in a trunk, but would only actively seek it out once it was considerably decayed. Scuttle flies, typically attracted to carrion at least a week and up to several years old, do not like fresh remains.
How long did the corpse remain in the car? The presence of coffin flies indicates that it must have been left in the trunk long enough to have decayed significantly. But how long did that take?
The time period in question, June 16th (Caylee’s disappearance) through June 27th (when Casey’s car was abandoned, the body supposedly removed) was very hot; decomposition would have been quick.
Because heat increases several decompositional processes: autolysis (enzymatic carrion breakdown), putrefaction (bacterial and fungal carrion breakdown) and infestation (fly, beetle carrion breakdown), extensive decay occurred within 96 hours.
During this time the body would have gone from fresh decay to a more advanced stage in which several fluids were secreted (attracting scuttle flies). Accordingly, the body could not have been moved before reaching this stage, or before the 19th, or else these fluids and the scuttle flies attracted to them would not have been present.
Furthermore, because the remains did not reach such advanced decay as to emit decompositional grease (none was present in the trunk) it is believed that they were taken out likely before June 23rd.
The theory of a June 22nd or earlier removal is also supported by the fact that in addition to hot ambient Orlando, Florida temperatures, solar radiation would have increased these already elevated temperatures within the space of the trunk. It is likely that the enclosure reached an excess of 90 degrees Fahrenheit for the three to four days following Caylee’s death in which she was believed to have been stored in it.
This heated atmosphere affects the flies themselves. In warmer climates bug growth is accelerated, creating a larger population in a shorter amount of time. This was taken into account December 11th after Caylee’s body was discovered and scientists attempted to pinpoint when she first died.
Importance of a Bug’s Lifecycle
By analyzing the puparia (structures larva hatch from and leave behind when they become adults), larvae, and adult specimens of several species found on and around the skeleton, scientists worked backwards through elapsed lifecycles to estimate the time of first infestation, or when eggs were laid by the insects which first landed upon the corpse.
Completing this process led to the conclusion that Caylee was killed during the period of late June to July. Though the body wasn’t discovered until December, death occurring after July was, due to entomological evidence, ruled out.
Forensic entomology allowed scientists to verify that Caylee Anthony's body was, at one point, likely present in the back of Casey's car. Further, they determined through a series of analytical procedures, that she would have been left there for at least 4 and up to 6 days after her June 16th disappearance. Bugs even helped pinpoint the time of removal to after dark.
This information, when added to other forensic evidence, makes the case against the mother of Caylee quite convincing. However, the jurors decided it was not convincing enough.