A forensic expert who has come up with a new technique for detecting decayed bodies testified Monday that he smelled an "overwhelmingly strong" odor of human decomposition in an air sample taken from the car of a Florida woman on trial in the death of her toddler daughter.
Arpad Vass, a researcher at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was the lone witness to take the stand to start the third week of the murder trial of Casey Anthony. Vass is one of the prosecution's key witnesses and began what is expected to be lengthy forensics testimony this week.
"The smell was overwhelmingly strong. I jumped back a foot or two," Vass said of the odor that came from the can he opened of the air sample from Anthony's Pontiac Sunfire. "It was shocking that little bitty can could have that much odor."
Prosecutors are trying to prove that Anthony suffocated her daughter, Caylee, with duct tape in 2008 and contend that traces of decomposition were found in her car. Her defense attorney says the toddler drowned in her grandparents' swimming pool.
The 2-year-old's skeletal remains were found in a wooded area not far from her grandparents' home. Anthony has pleaded not guilty, and if convicted, the 25-year-old could be sentenced to death.
Vass has a novel technique for detecting human decomposition from air samples and detailed for jurors his research on the chemical compounds observed when a body breaks down. Until Monday, the tests had never been admitted in a trial in the United States.
He presented charts for jurors showing high levels of those compounds in samples taken from Anthony's car. One of the compounds _ chloroform _ Vass said was found in "shockingly high" amounts in a sample taken from a stained portion of carpet in Anthony's trunk. Chloroform is a chemical associated with decomposition but also can be used to render a person unconscious.
"I consider it consistent with human decomposition," Vass said of his conclusions testing the carpet sample. "...I can find no other plausible explanation to explain all the results we found."
Vass' forensic testimony followed that of sheriff's department crime scene investigator Gerardo Bloise and FBI examiner Karen Korsberg Lowe last week. Bloise testified that he smelled human decomposition immediately after opening the door to examine Anthony's car. Lowe said a 9-inch hair pulled from Anthony's car was similar to one taken from Caylee's hair brush and showed signs consistent with decomposition as well.
Lead defense attorney Jose Baez objected to Vass' testimony throughout the day, attacking both his scientific credentials and the methodology used to form his final conclusions.
Under cross-examination, Baez pointed out that Vass does not have an emphasis in chemistry or biology, and is not a member of any major scientific organizations.
He also suggested that Vass might have had a financial incentive to have his results validated in a criminal case because the apparatus that was used to collect the air samples is new and could be marketed to law enforcement agencies.
But under re-direct examination by state attorney Jeff Ashton, he pointed out that when asked by Baez during a deposition about his potential financial earnings that Vass had no idea of what he stood to make. Only after inquiring at the behest of the defense was he told he could possibly earned 15 percent of any revenue.
Baez did get Vass to admit to telling a newspaper reporter in an interview that the smell of decomposition was similar to a rotten potato. But Vass defended himself when Baez peppered him with questions about not collecting the samples the he evaluated himself.
Earlier in the morning Baez briefly was permitted to question Vass' methodology outside the presence of the jury, but was stopped after Judge Belvin Perry said the questions he was asking him were outside the scope of his original objection. His objection was then overruled and the jury was brought back in.
Perry previously issued a pretrial order denying a defense request to exclude the air tests from the carpet sample taken from Anthony's car.