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Casey Anthony Trial Shows the Limits of Forensic Science in Proving How a Child Died

The Casey Anthony trial riveted America, with many TV experts and viewers almost certain of the young mother’s guilt. But with no eyewitnesses or confession, the case demonstrated how difficult it was to prove to a scientific certainty how 2-year-old Caylee died.

Earlier today, an Orlando, Fla., jury found Casey Anthony not guilty of killing her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, bringing to a stunning end a trial that had fixated the nation for weeks.

The case turned on similar questions of forensic expertise and evidence as those featured in The Child Cases, a joint reporting effort by ProPublica, PBS "Frontline" and NPR.

In stories published last week, we found that child deaths pose special technical challenges for forensic pathologists; in cases involving children, prosecutors and police often rely heavily on autopsy findings.

Our reporting showed that these cases have been repeatedly mishandled by medical examiners and coroners, sometimes resulting in innocent people being wrongly accused. In the Anthony case, it's unknown if flawed forensic evidence led to a false accusation or made it impossible to convict a guilty person of a horrible crime.

The verdict shocked a bevy of TV legal analysts as well as the millions of viewers who had slavishly followed the case's lurid twists and turns.

Caylee Anthony disappeared on June 16, 2008. Her decomposed body was discovered six months later—her face wrapped in duct tape and her body covered in plastic and laundry bags—in a wooded area near the Anthony home.

Chief medical examiner Dr. Jan Garavaglia, who appears on the Discovery Health Channel show Dr. G: Medical Examiner, concluded in her autopsy report that the cause of death was "homicide by undetermined means."

Based on Garavaglia's report and other evidence, prosecutors charged that Casey Anthony, 25, drugged her daughter with chloroform, and then put duct tape over her mouth and nose to suffocate her to death. Based on a rancid smell and a single strand of decomposing hair, the state alleged that Anthony hid the child's body in the trunk of her 1978 Pontiac Sunfire before disposing of it.

The defense argued that Caylee accidentally drowned in the family pool and that Casey Anthony and her father, George, covered it up. (George Anthony denied participating in a cover-up.)

Defense experts challenged each element of the prosecution's forensic evidence. Two experts disputed the state's claim that the levels of chloroform in Anthony's car were exceptionally high. One of them, FBI forensic chemist Michael Rickenbach, testified that the child's car seat, a steering wheel cover and doll all tested negative for the presence of chloroform.

Forensic pathologist Dr. Werner Spitz testified that he believed the duct tape was placed on Caylee's body after her flesh decomposed, perhaps to hold the jawbone while moving it. He also criticized Garavaglia for a "shoddy" autopsy because she failed to cut open the child's skull and look inside.

An FBI forensic expert testified for prosecutors that the hair found in the car trunk showed signs of decomposition consistent with coming from a dead body, but admitted on cross-examination that her conclusions were based on a still-evolving area of forensic science.

State Attorney Lawson Lamar acknowledged after the verdict was announced that doubts about the forensic evidence may have added up to reasonable doubt for jurors. "This was a dry bones case, very, very difficult to prove," he told Reuters "The delay in recovering little Caylee's remains worked to our considerable disadvantage."

Though the jury found Casey Anthony innocent of murder and child neglect, she was found guilty of providing false information to police. She is scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday.

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