Casey Anthony Trial: Should Jurors Be Allowed to Smell the Evidence?

By wire, Warren Richey | The Christian Science Monitor, June 3, 2011 | Go to article overview

Casey Anthony Trial: Should Jurors Be Allowed to Smell the Evidence?


wire, Warren Richey, The Christian Science Monitor


A question in the Casey Anthony trial was whether the trunk of the defendant's car smelled of human decomposition. But on Thursday the judge ruled out any smell test in the jury room.

Shortly after the defense rested on Thursday in the Casey Anthony murder trial, Chief Judge Belvin Perry was asked to resolve a novel question - what if jurors during their deliberations want to sniff preserved air samples taken from the trunk of Ms. Anthony's car.

A central issue in the month-long trial has been whether the foul smell that permeated Casey Anthony's 1978 Pontiac Sunfire was the odor of rancid garbage or the stench of death.

Prosecutors say the smell is evidence that Anthony hid the decomposing body of her two-year-old daughter in the car for several days before dumping it in the woods near the family home.

Defense lawyers counter that the unpleasant odor is the result of having left a bag of garbage in the trunk for a few weeks in the hot Florida sun.

The jurors have heard conflicting testimony about the possible source of the smell.

A scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee said the molecular composition of the stench in the car was consistent with chemicals emitted during human decomposition. But a Florida-based expert in chemical analysis of decomposition told the jury that the Oak Ridge research was still experimental and not reliable enough to be used in the criminal justice system.

A dog trained to find dead bodies signaled his handler that there might be a decomposing body in the trunk of the Sunfire. But the use of a dog's actions as evidence in a trial is highly unusual, particularly in a capital murder case, in part because a defendant has no opportunity to cross examine the dog to make sure the canine was not mistaken, tired, or distracted.

Lastly, prosecutors invited various experts and others who have been around dead bodies to take a whiff and render an opinion. But other witnesses, called by the defense, say the smell could have come from moldering garbage.

What's a juror to do?

Prosecutors are set to deliver their rebuttal case on Friday, with closing arguments and jury instructions expected on Saturday. Deliberations could begin as early as Saturday evening.

Thinking ahead, Assistant State Attorney Jeffrey Ashton raised the issue on Thursday of what should happen if the jury requests the opportunity to open and sniff a canned air sample taken from the trunk of Ms. Anthony's car.

The air samples, used to perform tests at the Oak Ridge laboratory, are entered as evidence in the case.

"Do you want the jury to open the can in the jury room and smell it," Judge Perry asked.

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