Friday, June 17, 2011
Many thanks to Professor Colin Miller for inviting me to guest blog on this site for a couple of weeks.
Much attention has been paid to the Casey Anthony case – State of Florida v. Casey Marie Anthony, Case No. 48-2008-CF-15606-O (In the Circuit Court of the Ninth Judicial Circuit in and for Orange County, Florida) before the Honorable Belvin Perry, Jr., Circuit Judge. A couple of Judge Perry’s Frye Orders are interesting. As most Americans know, Casey Anthony has been charged with first degree murder of her daughter Caylee. The indictment is available at: http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/10/15/caylee.indictment.pdf.
The trial began in Florida on May 24, 2011. Judge Perry ruled on two interesting Defense motions to exclude “unreliable evidence” under the standard followed in Florida, Frye v. U.S., 293 F. 1013 (D.C. Cir. 1923). The first Order was issued on April 27, 2011 and is available at: http://www.baynews9.com/static/articles/images/documents/casey-anthony-chloroform-motion-denied-0427.pdf (the “Chloroform Order”). The other is Judge Perry’s May 7, 2011 Order, available at: http://www.cfnews13.com/static/articles/images/documents/casey-anthony-order-denying-motion-to-exclude-unreliable-evidence.pdf (the “Decomposition Odor Analysis” Order).
In his Chloroform Order, Judge Perry denied Defendant’s motion to exclude any mention of chloroform at the Anthony trial. Defendant Anthony first moved to exclude the evidence based upon pure relevance grounds. The judge gave the relevancy objection short shrift. He found that there was circumstantial evidence that Casey Anthony had access to the computer that contained computer searches for the term “chloroform” prior to the death of her child.
On the Frye part of the motion, he determined that the method used for analysis of the carpet samples from the trunk of Defendant’s car (the GC/MS – gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer method) had been in use for 40 years and was generally accepted in the scientific community. He denied Defendant’s motion.
In his Decomposition Odor Analysis (DOA) Order, Judge Perry ruled on the Defendant’s Motion to Exclude “any testimony or evidence concerning any alleged identification of the chemical composition of human decomposition odor…or reference to an alleged “decompositional” odor analysis database.” At the Frye hearing, Dr. Arpad Vass, a senior research scientist with the University of Tennessee Oak Ridge National Laboratory testified that his colleague Dr. Marcus Wise “removed air with a syringe from the headspace of a metal evidence can containing the carpet sample taken from the vehicle allegedly driven by the Defendant.” His “Final Forensic Report” stated the following:
While not conclusive, these data indicate that:
(1) Nearly all the compounds present in early human decomposition were detected in the trunk samples…”; and
(2) Compounds that have been detected in these select animal remains and not in humans were not detected in the Florida trunk carpet sample…
The Defense called two scientists to refute that Dr. Vass’s scientific principles were generally accepted by members of his scientific field.
First, Judge Perry determined that expert testimony on “basic odor identification” would be allowed and he denied the Defendant’s motion on that particular evidence. He would permit testimony that when Dr. Vass opened the sealed container that contained the carpet sample, he smelled a “strong odor of human decomposition.” Second, he allowed in (under Frye) evidence that “the odor signature identified in the trunk of the vehicle alleged to have been used by the Defendant [was] consistent with an early decompositional event of human origin but that the results do not rule out the remote possibility an unusual variety of products or materials may have had some contribution to the overall chemical signature.”
My take on it: The Defense really did not have a Frye-type objection to the chloroform evidence. It is clear the method was well established in the field. The Defense really had an issue not with the method itself, but rather with how the samples were collected and analyzed. It really was not a Frye issue at all.
The Decomposition Odor Analysis (DOA) Order. Judge Perry really dodged the issue of whether Dr. Vass’s analysis passed muster under Frye – he seemed to indicate that because Dr. Vass found that the “odor signature” could not be found to be solely that of a decomposing human body, the Frye test was met. I disagree. That ruling has to do with the strength of the method, not whether the method has been generally accepted in the field. Only Dr. Vass and a Greek scientist, Dr. Statheropoulos have performed this type of “signature decomposition” analysis. Neither, it appears, had ever tested this method on carpet samples.
That being said, the possibility of Judge Perry’s ruling on the decomposition odor analysis being reversed on appeal (if indeed an appeal is taken if Casey Anthony is convicted) is slim. Judges have broad discretion in this area.