Muwdew Is Wot Bwings Us Toogeder Toooday
Posted by thedarwinexception on June 7, 2011
Today the esteemed Dr. Arpad Vass took the stand to talk about the smell in the trunk of Casey’s car, and the presence of chloroform in “shocking levels”. Jeff Ashton did the direct examination, and coughed in the middle of each question. And as if on cue, at the end of each cough, Jose Baez would get up to object – not to the coughing, but to the question. So it was “talk, cough, object, overruled, answer.” Lather, Rinse, Repeat. Oh My God.
Then, of course, we have Dr. Arpad Vass. You saw “The Princess Bride”, right? If you haven’t, well, shame on you. Go watch it right now. There. Now that you’ve gone and watched “The Princess Bride” – remember the wedding scene where Buttercup is marrying Prince Humperdinck? Remember the preacher? “Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday. Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam… ”. Yeah, that’s Dr. Arpad Vass….”The cawpet in the twunk was wepwesentative of the wevews of the cwomogwaph….” I expected him to start talking about “Wuv – twue wuv….” any minute.
So, between the “cough, object, overruled, answer” and the “twunk talk”. Well, who the fuck could concentrate? The only thing that kept me riveted was the hope that any second they were going to whip out those smell cans and start holding them under the jurors noses. Because that would be Awesome – especially if a few of them hurled. I was expecting the scene from “Stand By Me” where the one kid starts throwing up at the pie eating contest, setting off a chain reaction of the entire audience puking on each other. And let’s face it, that’s a fun day in court by anyone’s standards.
But, anyway, we have Dr. Arpad Vass, and mainly he’s there to prove that Caylee was in the back of Casey’s car dead. Which was a much bigger deal to prove when Casey was arrested and Caylee’s body hadn’t been found yet. After Caylee’s body was found and DNA was tested to prove the body was Caylee, where exactly she was after she died became a much smaller deal. Of course. It helps the prosecution if Casey is riding around with the kid dead in her car – but theoretically it doesn’t mean Casey killed her, and it doesn’t prove how Caylee died – It only means Casey knew Caylee was dead – and the defense has admitted that.
But, the smell and the chemicals and proving it was Caylee’s decomposing body that initiated that process does help the prosecution when it comes to the presence of chloroform, and their theory of the manner of death. It’s highly unlikely you would need to chloroform a drowned child when you put the body in the trunk. So there are lots of thing to listen for and understand in Dr. Vass’s testimony. So we’ll just have to overlook the coughing and objecting, and the fact that the Bishop from “The Princess Bride” is testifying.
Before Vass takes the stand, the defense renews all motions and objections to his testimony. And again, I am confused because Baez worked really hard to get Cindy and George to admit that the smell in the trunk of the car was “really bad” and “overpowering”. Now he seems, again, to be backing off of this and trying to prove that the smell in the car wasn’t due to Caylee being in there. I have no idea from day to day, witness to witness, what Baez’s theory is. If he’s trying to prove that George had access to the car as Casey did (by virtue of having spare keys), I thought that his theory was going to be that yeah, George had access to the car and could have put the body in the car. Which it seems to me, would be a viable issue to address and embrace – “Sure the body was in there! George put it in there! Then he told Casey that he borrowed her car and hit an animal – that’s why Casey texted that to Amy!” Why not go with the flow and embrace the state’s evidence as your own? Seems more logical to me than to argue against the smell in the car while at the same time trying to put forth that George had access to the car. I don’t know, Baez confuses me.
But, the defense renews it’s motions and objections, and also informs the court that they deposed Vass on Friday night (geez, procrastinate much?) The state hasn’t turned over Vass’s database yet. Baez thinks the database could be exculpatory (I doubt it). The judge doesn’t even bat an eye and asks the state who their first witness will be. (HA! That was kind of funny…the judge kind of blew Baez off)
Dr. Arpad Vass takes the stand. Ashton goes through Vass’s CV – which is impressive. He has a master’s degree, a PhD, and tons of experience. And, you know, he works at the Body Farm, which, in and of itself is fucking cool that I can’t stand it. Grand Ole’ Opry my ass. The Body Farm should be the number one tourist destination in Tennessee. That’s where I would go.
Vass says that as a senior researcher at the Body Farm one has to have a vast array of knowledge in many different scientific disciplines. His areas of expertise include anthropology, biology, chemistry, microbiology, clinical pathology and ecobiology.
Vass first began working with Dr. William Bass (the founder of the Body Fame) in 1988 or 1989 while studying for his PhD. He wanted to pursue Forensic Science, and began a course of study to achieve his Master’s in the that area. He began a series of conversations with William Bass, and eventually wrote his dissertation and thesis based on those conversations. The focus of his studies became The Post Mortem Interval, or “PMI” – the biochemical determination of how long a body has been dead. Prior to this time, this area had never been studied biochemically.
So Vass went to work at the Body Farm to further this study. Established in 1972, The Body Farm (proper name “Anthropological Research Facility”) is a unique facility. At the time Vass first began his work there it was the only facility in the world where a person could study whole body decompositional events. It is an outdoor facility, roughly 1.5 acres large. Since 1972, there have been approximately 1,100 test subjects that have gone through the facility. (Test subjects are bodies that have been “donated to Science”). These donated remains are left outside in the elements at various places and points and under various conditions within the body farm, and their decomposition is noted and experimented with by the researchers. Some are left in the trunk or interior of a car, some are buried at differing depths and some are left on various surfaces.
In the early 80’s when Vass began his studies into PMI (Post Mortem Interval, or “time since death”), he was initially focusing on the chemical breakdown of soft tissue in the human body. Soft tissue in the human body is made up of four components: Proteins, Lipids, Carbohydrates and Nucleic Acids. As these components liquefy after death, this liquid spills out onto whatever surface the body is laying on, whether that is soil or bedding, clothing or concrete. Vass was analyzing this liquid to see what components were reliably being produced within this fluid that could indicate how long that person had been dead.
Typically, there are 4 recognized stages of decomposition:
1. Fresh Stage – This stage includes the 2 main processes of early human decomposition. The first is autolysis (Greek for “self digestion”). There are about 100 trillion cells in the human body. If someone dies suddenly, the cells of the body don’t realize right away that the host is dead. The cells continue to do what they always do, and that is cellular metabolism. One of the by-products of cellular metabolism is carbon dioxide. In life, this carbon dioxide was eliminated through exhalation and circulation. Because there is now no more exhalation or circulation, this gas builds up inside the cells of the body. Carbon Dioxide is acidic, and mammalian cells don’t like acids. As the cells break down from the buildup of acids, they release enzymes. These enzymes begin digesting the cells from the inside out. This is autolysis – self digestion. This is visibly apparent from blisters forming on the skin. As these blisters rupture and the nutrient rich cells beneath are liquified, you will see skin slippage. As the blisters rupture they also give the body a moisture rich appearance. The body looks “wet”. This allows the second major process in the “Fresh Stage” to occur: Putrefaction. This is when other microbiological organisms, (fungi, bacteria, mold) begin to feed on the nutrient rich liquids left by the ruptured blisters. These organisms can come from inside the body, from the skin or from the environment. The combined processes of autolysis and putrefaction begin the liquefaction of the body. That is essentially what decomposition is – taking a complex structure and breaking it down into smaller components until the soft tissue is liquified.
2. Bloat Stage – This is when the microorganisms and bacteria in the intestinal tract of the body start to “go crazy” from the nutrient rich cells caused by autolysis. The bacteria feed on these cells, and one of the by-products of the bacterial metabolism is gas, including hydrogen, carbon dioxide, ammonia or methane. When the normal escape routes for these gases (rectum or esophagus) is occluded, or blocked, the gases build up in the body wherever this process is occurring, and cause a distension or bloating of the tissues. The gas will eventually find a way out, as the decomposition of the body progresses.
3. Active Decay – 40 to 80% of the decomposition of a body is active decay. This is when the majority of the liquefaction of the soft tissue occurs. All the organs liquefy, the nutritive tissue becomes dissolved, and leads to the final stage.
4. Dry Stage – This is when all the non-nutritive tissue (non nutritive because the bacteria and insects don’t want it, there’s no value to it), will become dry and parchment like, leading to mummification, or you can be left with a pile of skeletal elements – bones.
There are four factors that determine how long this entire process takes.
2. The presence of water – either internally or from the environment
3. PH – Aerobic Decomposition (in the oxygen, or outdoors) is typically alkaline, or high PH and quicker than Anaerobic Decomposition – which is acidic decomposition, such as in a burial situation, when a body is buried in something and there is not as much oxygen exchanged.
4. Presence of Oxygen – Aerobic decomposition is much faster than Anaerobic.
The most important of these factors is temperature. The higher the temperature, the faster the decomposition. The four factors taken together affect the rate and completeness of the decompositional process.
During Vass’s work with the PMI, he was focusing on the liquefaction portions of the decomposition process, to see if there was anything present in that liquid that could be instrumental in determining the PMI, or time since death. Because he wasn’t sure exactly what he was looking for at first, he began screening for a bunch of known compounds. What he ended up finding was that muscle and fat break down into what is known as volatile fatty acids. There are about 20 known volatile fatty acids. Of these, only a few are reproducible by the body and useful in determining how long someone has been dead. These compounds include Butyric Acid, Valeric Acid and Propionic Acid.
The results of these initial studies were published in the Journal of Forensic Science in 1992. Included in this initial paper were the findings of the fatty acids, as well as the results of another component of the study, the analysis of inorganic components, since the human body is comprised of not only organic materials, but also inorganic materials, such as calcium. The initial studies Vass did also revealed that they could use not only the organic compounds to determine time since death, but also the inorganic compounds. Normally, the volatile fatty acids are used to determine earlier time since death estimates, because there is a lot of soft tissue available to be used. But as the soft tissue goes away, and you are left with more non-nutritive tissue, the inorganic compounds, such as magnesium, calcium, potassium and sodium, can be used to determine time since death. Vass was eventually awarded his PhD 1991 for these initial studies and their publication.
There were other methods developed over time. The first 10 years or so of Vass’s work at the Body Farm, both through being an employee of the University and later the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (in 1992 after his PhD was obtained), was spent developing methods, because each homicide is different, and there needed to be a variety of tools and methods available to work with.
The Department of Energy runs a number of National Laboratories across the country. Oak Ridge is one of those laboratories. It is the largest laboratory in the Department of Energy complex, employing 4-5000 people, and any number of Research Guests. There are a number of areas of key research and many large projects which require mulch-disciplinary teams. These projects include such things as climate change and the research of new bio-fuels, and other projects that have nothing to do with “energy”, although they are all conducted under the auspices of the Department of Energy Laboratory.
As a “Senior Research Scientist”, Vass has, on occasion, worked on some of the multidisciplinary projects, even though he may not be an “expert”in a field, as a research scientist he is expected to at least be more familiar than some “man on the street” in most every field. For instance, he is working on a project using his microbiology expertise that involves developing new plants that produce bio-fuels.
Eventually, there came a point in time when Vass decided that he had done all that he could do in the area of PMI. After their third model was completed – the one that involved how tissue breaks down in early stage decomposition, which eventually became the world-wide standard in determining to the hour when someone died – Vass thought that he had reached the limit of his knowledge regarding bio-chemistry, and decided in the year 2000 to look at other areas.
Up until this point, Vass had thought that the most difficult question a Forensic Anthropologist could answer was “tine since death”. Vass came to realize that he was wrong – the most difficult challenge was actually the detection of clandestine graves. This is very complicated process – especially if the graves are several years old. So Vass began to look at ways to improve the technology associated with detecting clandestine graves. Up until this point, the predominant methods of locating clandestine graves relied on cadaver dogs, ground penetrating radar, magnetometers, hand probes, and none were very effective, and most had environmental restrictions.
Because the most effective method was the cadaver dogs, Vass began to explore the odor evolution of decompositional events. In order to study this, he again utilized the Body Farm. He buried a number of bodies, and these graves were kind of special in that Vass utilized piping in their burial, laying a length of pipe both underneath the body, above the body and at the surface of the soil. The bodies were buried at different depths, from 3.5 feet underneath the surface, to shallow graves. Vass then began monitoring which chemicals were produced in each burial situation, and how long it took each chemical to reach the surface, if they made it through the soil column, and which compounds were produced below and above the body and were recorded in those pipes.
The compounds that migrated to the surface were the important ones to Dr. Vass, because those compounds were the ones that the cadaver dogs would be reacting to when locating clandestine graves.
These compounds also allowed for the development, or theoretical development , of instrumentation to locate these graves by identifying these particular compounds.
In his 20 years working at the Body Farm, Vass testifies that he has followed approximately 50 bodies through the complete decomposition process. He has been exposed to the odor’s emitted by these particular bodies at all stages of the process In addition to that, there have probably been hundreds of bodies that he has smelled at any one time or stage of their process. He has found the odor of human decomposition to be a unique smell, and he says there is literature that also comments on human decomposition being a unique odor, and literature that compares human decomposition odor to that of pigs and other animals. Vass has also worked with animal decomposition. At the Body Farm, there is also work done with animals. There are many countries that don’t have access to a “Decay Facility”, and there are governmental rules on those countries that prohibit experiments on human bodies, so they contract with the Body Farm to provide animal bodies and tissues for research. Generally these are pigs, so the body farm makes use of pig decompositional events. Typically, when Vass or other researchers study animals, they generally work with roadkill, cats, dogs, deer, and other Tennessee wildlife.
Vass says that human decomposition odors are distinguishable from animal decompositional odors. He says that wild animals have a muskier smell, domesticated animals tend to be sweeter.
Vass’s study in clandestine graves, where he buried the bodies with the piping system, began in 2002, and continued through 2007. In 2004 Vass published some initial findings in the Journal of Forensic Science. This paper discussed the establishment of the graves, and the assimilation of the initial chemicals identified and an evaluation of the environmental parameters that affected the de evolution of those compounds.- temperature, rainfall, barometric pressure – and barometric pressure plays a great role in the research. Vass describes the soil and the surface as a living entity, if high pressures move in, it pushes rising chemicals back into the ground, so you can’t detect them at the surface. It doesn’t mean that the body isn’t generating those chemicals, it just means that they aren’t detectable at the surface. If a low pressure comes in, it seems to suck those chemicals up out of the ground,. Rainfall also plays a part. In the initial study, when 200 or so chemicals were detected by Vass, some were water soluble, some were not water soluble, so when it rains, sometimes the chemicals will float above the water, sometimes the water pushes them back into the ground. So the entire process is complicated and complex when the environment interacts with the chemicals produced by the decomposing bodies.
After the publishing of the initial findings, Vass and his team began to look at bodies that were decomposing on the surface level as well as skeletal remains. They also included a fifth body and were working with that body with a different type of technology – rather than utilizing the piping system they used SPME fibers – Solid Phase Micro Extraction fibers.
For the second phase study they looked at 10 individuals – also buried at the Body Farm – who were classified as “surface burials”. Some were just lying on the surface, some were loosely covered with plastic tarps, and some were encased in body bags. The air samples for these individuals were collected not with pipes, but with Triple Sorbent Trap – or TST. These were the same traps used on the ports on the ends of the pipes with the buried individuals. These traps are filled with activated carbon, the same stuff used in Fish Aquariums to filter the water. As the air passes through these traps via a small air pump, the three different types of activated carbon strips the air of the odor causing chemicals, capturing it in the activated carbon. The carbon can then be analyzed in the laboratory. Heating up the tube that holds the carbon causes the carbon to release the compounds that were captured in the decompositional event, and the resulting heated gas is forced into a chromatograph. Vass also used a process called cryofocusing. As the chemicals leave the little triple sorbent tube, and go into the analysis instrument, they go through a little metal loop which has been cryogenically frozen by liquid nitrogen. The freezes all the odor elements into a small pellet. This concentrates the chemicals, so that when they are heated they are again volatile, and even minute amounts of chemicals can be tracked. The above ground remains were studied for 2 to 3 years using these methods. In both the buried and unburied bodies, samples were initially taken weekly, then bi-weekly, until the remains were skeletonized, when the sampling went to monthly.
The previous papers were updated with new information in 2008. (At this point, Dr. Vass is submitted to the court as an expert witness. He is accepted as such over the defense’s objections and renewal of their previous objections and motions.)
In 2008 Vass was contacted by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office asking if he would look at some materials that related to a criminal case, and utilize this methodology he has been describing to analyze these materials. He was initially contacted by Yuri Melich. Vass was sent materials and asked to examine them.
T this point, Vass identifies the first item he was sent – a metal evidence can. Vass testifies he also received a bag with an air sample, and the SPME fibers used to collect air samples from Dr. Sigman. Vass testifies that it was Dr. Wise, not himself who actually analyzed the air sample contained in the bag. Vass and Wise were not sure how that air sample was collected, if it had been done according to their normal procedure. Vass testifies that if an analysis was done on that sample, he is not sure what the results were. This sample was not used in his final results or opinions in this case.
Vass testifies that he sent Michael Vincent equipment and instructions on how to collect an air sample from various spaces. He sent Vincent the air pump/TST set up. He received back from Vincent the 9 tubes used to collect the samples.
Vass testifies that he was assisted in the analyzing of the samples sent to him by Vincent by Dr. Marcus Wise, an analytical chemist and Dr. Madhavi Martin, a physicist. It was Dr. Wise’s laboratory where the analysis was done.
When Vass first received the evidence can that contained the carpet sample from Casey’s car, Dr. Wise cracked the seal on the can and removed about .8 mills of “head space”. This is the air above the sample. This sample was then put into the GCSM. The results of that initial test showed one very, very large peak and a number of smaller peaks. The large peak was identified as chloroform.
While chloroform is a naturally occurring by-product of decomposition, the levels found in this sample were “shockingly high” So they continued to analyze the sample. Because many of the peaks were very small, they decided to concentrate the sample using cryofocusing. Since they were not sure that the air on the can was coming from the carpet or not, they removed the carpet sample from the can and placed the carpet sample in a Tedlar bag and incubated it for 2 days at 35 degrees Celsius, basically body temperature. They wanted to isolate the chemicals that were specifically coming from the carpet.
From this bag, which contains 1 liter of air, they extracted 10 milliliters and put that through the GCSM.
From this concentrated sample they were able to identify 51 separate chemical components. One of these was chloroform. The base peak – the largest one on the chromatogram – was chloroform. This shocked the doctors. They had never seen chloroform in those levels in an environmental sample – at least he hadn’t – in all of his 20 years of research. Of course, they had seen naturally occurring levels of chloroform in decompositional events – but those had been in parts per trillion – this amount was much larger. The doctors shot a standard (a known amount), to verify that the peak was indeed chloroform. Since the standard and the amount of the standard was known, they could make a rough approximation of chloroform present. The rough approximation of the sample was in the parts per million range.
They did not try to approximate it more because that would have required the purchase of a more concentrated standard, and even if they did that, what they would be quantifying was just the minimum amount of chloroform in the sample – since chloroform evaporates rapidly, it would not tell them how much had been present, for instance, in the tow yard, or in the forensics bay, or at any time previous to that.
As a control standard, the doctors obtained a sample of carpet from a similar vehicle, just to ensure that chloroform wasn’t a naturally produced chemical from this particular carpet. The control car was a similar make, model and age, and was from junkyard in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Ashton then goes over the actual chromatograph from the carpet sample – and compares this graph to the control sample graph. Vass also found the components of gasoline in the sample. There is some overlap between the components of gasoline and the components of human decomposition. And Vass says he would not be surprised to find actual gasoline in the trunk of a car – especially since he understands that here was at one time, a gasoline can in the trunk of the car. There is a visible and huge difference between the levels of chloroform in the control car and Casey’s car. The level in the control car was no more than 5,000 in height abundance, as compared to 16 million in Casey’s car.
The area under the peak – the total volume of the chemical – was almost 400 million in Casey’s car, the control car sample was 10,000, which is typical for an environmental sample.
After this testing, Vass had the carpet submitted for a different kind of testing – to determine if there were any inorganic compounds present. For this analysis they employed LIBS – Laser induced Breakdown Spectroscopy. Both LIBS and the prior testing were employed because they are both noon destructive techniques – the doctors did not have to destroy any part of the sample of carpet to achieve the results. They did this intentionally, so that if the defense wanted to to conduct their own testing, they would have the opportunity to do so.
LIBS is essentially a laser based technique. What happens is a laser is directed onto the carpet – and the laser hits the carpet and creates an excited state in the electrons. When the laser is turned off, the electrons fall back to ground state. When the electrons fall back to ground state, they cast off the energy that they were imbued with by the laser, and this energy is released as a photon of light. The light is piked up by a fiber optic and goes into a spectrophotometer. Every element has it’s own photon signature, so the spectrophotometer is able to identify the elements that are present in the sample.
As mentioned before, the human body is made up of organic and inorganic chemicals. As decomposition progresses, in organics are liberated. When they conducted the LIBS test, the doctors were looking for elevated levels of inorganic compounds consistent with a decompositional event.
At this point Baez asks if he can voir dire the witness as to his methodology. The judge allows it. Baez points out that the doctor isn’t a physicist and Dr. Martin is the actual person who performed the LIBS examination, because it was her laser. Vass wasn’t present, although the procedure is documented.
The judge excuses the jury and explains the evidence code – that as long as the results of a test are made known to an expert witness before the trial, and the expert witness relies on that test in forming his/her opinion, then that opinion is admissible, whether or not the actual test itself is admissible.
The judge tells Baez that if he has questions about methodology – he can ask them in his proffer – but he can’t attack the actual test.
Baez asks Vass about the results of the LIBS exam – Vass says that inorganic compounds that are normally found in human decomposition were found in elevated levels as opposed to the control carpet sample. These inorganic chemicals included calcium, sodium, magnesium, carbon and iron. Baez asks the witness if he normally conducts LIBS exams and the witness admits no, he doesn’t. Baez asks if these inorganic compounds are also found in other sources. Vaas says that elements are found in everything known to man. Baez asks “Well, then since this is outside your area of expertise, you aren’t a physicist, you can’t assign a weight of importance to these chemicals, then, can you?” Vass says he doesn’t know if that is true – he certainly knows which inorganic compounds are released during a decompositional event, so he can make a conclusion that since all these inorganic elements are elevated, which should be elevated, it’s just another corroboration of what his nose tells him is correct. (Snap! Getting the nose in there – hahaha.) Baez then goes on to ask a bunch of questions that don’t make sense – like “You can only compare this to what you’ve studied, right?” And the Dr. says :That isn’t true – you can compare any two things you’d like…” Then Baez asks another nonsensical question, and the Doctor says to Baez “I don’t think you understand what’s happening here” and proceeds to explain it to him. (Too bad that didn’t happen in front of the jury….) Vass says “We compared the Florida car carpet sample to the control sample of the Tennessee car carpet sample – that’s the only comparative analysis we made. You can’t compare a soil sample to a paint chip on the wall – that’s not a fair comparison..” And Baez says “And the Florida car compared to the Tennessee car is the only comparison you can make, isn’t it, doctor?” Like it’s just disdainful or foolish…..I think Vass is right – Baez doesn’t “get it.” Vass retorts with “Umm…well, that’s the one we did….”
Baez is an idiot. If there was ever any doubt, I think this confirms it. And it just goes to show you, people, when you go to jail, yeah, don’t take advice on attorneys from other people that are sitting in jail. Get your attorney advice from people whose attorneys have actually sprung them from jail. Good God.
Baez gives the state and defense homework to read over the lunch hour on the evidence code.
Ashton can continue with his examination. The defense is overruled. Again.
Ashton shows the witness the chart of inorganic elements found in the carpet sample through the use of the LIBS examination. The witness testifies that there were elevated levels of calcium in Casey’s car – calcium was so low in the control car carpet that it wasn’t even really measurable. The other inorganic chemicals tested for were also elevated in Casey’s car and virtually unmeasurable in the control car.
Vass says they also eventually did some minor chemical extractions. They cut off some of the fibers from the carpet, and placed the fibers in a solvent of methanol. They then took a sample of the methanol and put that through the GCSM. This was to detect some of the chemicals that weren’t released in a gaseous form and weren’t identifiable from the other tests. The “head space” test was only to detect chemicals that were being released from the carpet and were in the air above the carpet. The methane test would detect chemicals that were stuck in the carpet and weren’t being released into the air through evaporation.
Vass says there were a number of peaks in the methane analysis, the most notable being Buteric Acid. This is one of the volatile fatty acids that is used for PMI determination. What’s interesting about Buteric Acid is that it’s the first of the volatile fatty acids liberated during human decomposition. Buteric Acid was in the carpet itself.
These are all of the tests that Vass did of any significance.
Vass testifies that when he initially received the can, it was sealed. When he first opened the can, he says that he “jumped back a foot or two.” Vass says that the odor was extremely overwhelming. He was shocked that that little teeny can could have such an overwhelming odor inside of it. He says he immediately recognized the smell as that of human decomposition.
Vass says he was also sent a small plastic vial containing scrapings from the inside wheel well of the car. They did a chemical extract of that material, which revealed the presence of acetic acid. This was significant not only because it is a by-product of human decomposition, but only because it is an ingredient in chloroform. Vass also received some paper towels/napkins that he performed testing on.
After the lunch break, the judge prints out a list of movies for both the state and the defense. These are movies that the jury has asked to be put on the approval list: “50 First Dates”, “Blue Streak”, “A Love Song for Bobby Long”, “The Proposal”, “Dirty Love”, “21”. Ummmmm…..“Dirty Love”? Really? Is that a porno?
The Doctor is back on the stand and continues with the paper towels/napkins. They did a methanol chemical extraction test on these items, as well. There were a number of fatty acids on these materials, as well. The fatty acids Vass found were the major components of adipocere, or “grave wax”, the by-product of fat breaking down.
Vass had asked Michael Vincent to also get samples of the air in the forensic bay itself. Vass explains that he asked for these samples to ensure that the carpet itself was the point source of the odor. Vass also received air samples from the trash that had reportedly been in the trunk of the car. After testing these samples as well, Vass was able to determine that the carpet was the source of the odor.
Every odor that we smell, whether it is car exhaust, flowers, food cooking, is comprised of many chemicals. It is the concentration and combination of chemicals that makes each of those odors unique. These chemicals are not unique in nature – so there is going to be some cross reactivity to a small extent. For instance, a rose may have 12 chemicals that make up it’s fragrance. Trash may have another 20 chemicals. Some of the chemicals may be the same in both, but it’s the chemicals combination and concentration of each one of the sources that makes it unique.
In the sample taken from the trunk of Casey’s car, there were 51 chemicals. 41 of those were related to human decomposition, Of those 41, there was an overlap with gasoline. Because they didn’t know if those chemicals were originally from human decomposition or from gasoline, they eliminated those chemicals. That left 24 compounds. Of those, they started looking at control samples. They started eliminating those that were also found in the control car trunk, those that could be related to decomposing pizza, any that could be related to squirrel remnants, the interior car components, the garage air, anything that could be related to any of the other control samples. That left a remaining total of 16 compounds. Of those 16 compounds, 7 of those are considered “significant”. In the 2008 paper, Vass had listed 30 compounds, out of the total 500 or so, that were considered “significant” in the presence of human decomposition. Of the 16 compounds left from the sample of air in Casey’s trunk, after all the eliminations had taken place, 7 of these compounds were on this list of compounds that Vass has listed as “significant” for the presence of human decomposition.
And it’s not that the 30 compounds that Vass listed would be found all at the same time in a human decompositional event. Decomposition is cyclical, and some compound show up earlier, some show up later. Vass’s lists of 30 significant compounds encompassed all stages of decomposition, as well as both aerobic and anaerobic decomposition.
So the 7 compounds left were all on the list of the 30 that Vass had found most relevant out of the 500 or so total found.
Vass says that he does not think that there is a clear and scientific odor signature for human decomposition. But Vass says that the odor as tested, in his opinion, is consistent with human decomposition. The results of the scraping from the wheel well is consistent, as well, with human decomposition, although not as definitive, since acetic acid is also found in other places and compounds – such as vinegar. Also, the LIBS examination of the carpet also is consistent with human decomposition, since all the chemicals found are those one would expect to see at elevated levels during a human decompositional event The Buteric acid found on the spare tire cover carpet is not generally found in environmental control samples -that is an early product of human decomposition, and is consistent with a human decompositional event. The adipocere found on the tissues is generally only found in decomposition.
Taking all of these test findings, and adding to that Dr. Vass’s personal olfactory experience with smelling the air sample, he says that he can find no other plausible explanation for the test results other than there being a dead body in the process of decomposition in the trunk of the car.
The state ends it’s direct – Baez is up to cross. Baez determines that the Doctor is not a cross. He also hasn’t listed what he got his PhD in on his CV. A mistake Baez pointed out during the Frye hearing, and that Vass has since corrected.
Vass also listed himself as “research scientist” on his papers, not “anthropologist.” And he hasn’t taken a course in chemistry since the 80’s.
Baez then points out that Vass’s Facebook account and Wikipedia page list him as a chemist. (I don’t think Baez understands Wiki, either….I could list on Wiki that *I’m* a chemist….) The doctor said he doesn’t have a Facebook page and he’s never submitted anything to Wikipedia on any subject.
Baez then gets to Vass’s financial interest in his testimony here. Vass says he doesn’t have a financial interest to his knowledge. Baez says Vass has built a database on which he relies to render his opinion. Vass says no, he’s relied on lots of his own published data. Vss says there are 478 different componds that comprise his database.
Baez then tries to undermine the Dr’s work – by dismissing it as nothing more than a guy burying 4 bodies and setting up contraptions to measure stuff that comes out of the ground after they buried the bodies. Baez asks the doctor if it’s true that the first readings that they got took 17 days – the doctor says that yes, but that’s how long it took the chemicals to migrate to the surface from the level of the body. Chemicals were being generated at the body itself, but it took 17 days for those chemicals to reach the surface. Baez asks Vass if it’s true that he refused to turn his database over to the defense for their own verification. Vass says that it isn’t his to turn over to anyone. Vass says it belongs to the people that gave him the grant to do the research. Vass says that he thought the defense had been given the database, since he was deposed regarding the database. Baez says that they were given a list of the chemicals, but not the database.
Baez then asks if it’s true that the Doctor needs grants and money to do research – Vass agrees that this is so. Baez asks if he works in a research lab and if that is different than a forensics lab – the Doctor says yes, the end product in his lab is research.
Baez asks if it’s true that Vass holds a patent on a device that is called a “Labrador”. Vass says that yes, he is listed as an inventor in the patent disclosure. Baez asks if the device utilizes the database, and Vass says the device utilizes the compounds listed in the 2008 paper. Baez asks if it is the doctor’s intent to sell these devices – which are hand held devices that look almost like metal detectors – to police departments all across the country.
Vass explains that in his job as researcher at the National Lab, they are required to file invention disclosures. In this particular grant, which was separate from the development of the database, this was a grant from the National Institute of Justice, the end product of that grant was to be a device to locate clandestine graves. Because an invention was actually developed, he dutifully and correctly, filed a patent disclosure with the Laboratory based on that instrument. It is the laboratory’s decision whether or not to file a patent ont hat instrument – the doctor says he has no say in that decision. Baez asks again if it’s the doctor’s goal to sell these machines to law enforcement agencies all around the country, and the doctor again answers that no, it was his goal to develop the technology so that someday, if a patent is ever issued, an investor can come in and license the product to sell as a technological aid in locating clandestine graves. Baez asks if the doctor will get a royalty fee on the sale of the items. And the doctor says that he really doesn’t understand the process all that well, but he thinks if he does get a royalty, that it’s fairly insignificant.
Baez asks if he billed in this case under the “Labrador” project. The doctor says no, he did this on his own personal time.
Baez goes back again to the difference between a research lab and a forensic lab. Baez asks if the difference is that he does experiments. The doctor replies that research data is his product. Baez asks if one of the differences is that a research lab doesn’t have protocols. The doctor replies that a research lab is the place that develops the protocols. Baez asks if there were protocols in this case. Vass says that the protocols were set in the 2004 and 2008 peer reviewed journals. Baez says “Yeah, but the titles of your papers reference buried bodies” and the doctor points out that Baez had asked about procedures, and those were all the same. Baez asks again – “but there’s nothing in writing to set out procedures” and the doctor replies that if you want to replicate an experiment, you simply go to the procedure and method portion of the peer reviewed articles and you will find those steps there. Baez then implies that there is no quality control in Vass’s lab – Vass explains that they run blanks, they have controls and they have standards – those are all part of quality control. Baez then pints out that there was nothing written that said they avoided contamination.
Baez asks if they did a “qualitative analysis” rather than a “quantitative analysis” in this case. Meaning they identified chemicals rather than measured chemicals. Vass agrees.
Vass issued a preliminary report in this case in August 2008. Within days of that date the report became public. Vass says he didn’t do that. Baez says he knows. Vass sent an email to Vincent in this case because he was pissed off about all the media attention.
In his preliminary report, Vass said he found 54 chemicals in the trunk of the car. In the second report he said he found 51 chemicals. Vass says that this is because of the overlap with the gasoline that was present. In the second report they eliminated some of the chemicals that were showing up twice in two different forms.
Baez then starts writing on a big visual aid all the differences in the 2 reports – which loses a little of it’s doubt inducing luster because Vass agrees with him and makes explanations that make perfect sense. Baez probably realizes this, because he drops is line of questioning rather abruptly and starts asking about the junkyard control car and why three of them showed up in one report and two in the other. Again, Vass makes a perfectly reasonable explanation, and Baez again just looks like he’s grasping at straws.
Baez then asks about the trash that was found in the trunk and how Vass can’t know what was I the chemical breakdown of these items, because he wasn’t given those. Vass says he was given a list of the items, not the actual items, but that he tested air samples attributed to the trash. Baez then questions the dates of those air samples – and how air is “free flowing” (again).
Baez then goes through every single envelope with the TST’s that Vass used for his “table” of air samples. Vass kind of chuckles and says “Well, yes, but you have to understand here…..I know it’s complicated but…” which is kind of funny. Vass seems confused by Baez and his questions (he’s not the only one…) the little “gotchya!” moments that Baez is shooting for are only coming off as confusing, ignorant and uninformed.
I have absolutely no idea what Baez is shooting for. I don’t know if this is because Baez is confusing, the material is toi complicated, or if I’m just not paying close enough attention. Or maybe I’m giving Baez too little credit and he’s deliberately trying to just confuse thing. If this is the cse, he’s doing a really good job.
Baez is back to his visual aid of the different number of chemicals listed in each of the reports and asks Vass if he can account for the different numbers, and Vass again repeats that there were overlaps in the chemical compounds and they eliminated those.
The Baez gets into the LIBS test, and again tells Vass that Vass is not a physicist. Baez asks if the 5 inorganic chemicals that Vass found with the LIBS test are also found in trash, and Vass says he doesn’t know that.
Vass really burns Baez when Baez asks the doctor about the junkyard car – sitting in the junkyard, year after year, soaking up all these natural chemicals, and Vass says “Yeah, cool that the levels were still less than the Florida car, huh?”
Baez then asks if Blue Star was used on the control car – Vass says no – but they looked at the Material Safety Data Sheet for Blue Star and accounted for those chemicals. They did the same thing for Febreeze.
Baez then asks about the paper towels and the fatty acids they contained. Baez tries to get the doctor to say that these acids could come from anywhere – like a chicken bone – but the doctor says no. Baez wonders if it could be from cleaning up raw met in a kitchen, and the doctor says sure – if you are cleaning up several pounds of meat.
Baez asks the doctor if he had tried to find clandestine graves at the Barker ranch in California (this is from the Charles Manson case – the authorities did a stud there a few years back trying to see if there were more Manson victims buried on the ranch where Charlie stayed.)
The judge sends the jury out – Baez gets another proffer. Vass was sent soil samples from the California authorities – samples which he deemed consistent with a decompositional event. He then went to the site at the ranch and used many instruments including a GCSM and magnetometer and hand held ground penetrating radar device to search for clandestine graves. Because of Vass’s findings, an exploratory excavation ensued. The found no graves at the depth they dug – but Vass says that the depth they dug to was only the ground surface level 40 – 50 years ago when those graves would have been dug.
The state crosses on the proffer – about the limitations and exploratory nature of the excavation in California. Vass testifies that no one actually knows if there are bodies there.
The judge sustains the objection regarding the Manson killings. Those questions can’t be asked, not relevant, the conditions were totally different.
Baez then asks again about protocols, and the collection of samples. Baez takes out of context a statement of protocols that the doctor had written regarding collecting control samples in a field.
Baez then asks about divining rods (sticks used to locate water….) Vass admits that one of his hobbies is using coat hangars to find hidden graves. (loony). Vass says he teaches about this subject – it’s a wonderful way to learn about the properties of science. The judge sustains the objection when Baez asks about the electronic leashes on flies.
Vass admits that this is the first time he has testified regarding these matters. He doesn’t know if this is the first time *anyone* has testified on these materials. Baez asks if there are any other papers or studies concerning this area, and Vass says that there is one other study where 4 of the 5 materials found in this case were also found – that guy didn’t find chloroform.
Baez then asks the doctor if he ever said that the smell of human decomposition smells amazingly like a rotting potato. Vass did says that – and then studied a potato and the chemicals were different.
Baez seems to find it quite significant that the Doctor didn’t actually do any of the physical collection of samples himself – and that he doesn’t know the history of any of the samples, such as the trunk of Casey’s car or the history of the junkyard car. I think that the state should point out that any forensic analyst in any case doesn’t know the history of the items they are sampling – and many of them don’t actually collect the samples themselves, either.
The positive control that Vass used int his case was a blanket recovered in a Montana case where a child’s body was wrapped in a blanket and left in a trunk of a car for three months. Baez points out that Vass doesn’t know the history of that car, or the blanket, and Vass didn;t collect a pieceof the carpet from that car. Vass points out that this was a positive control to see if those chemicals that they found could be found in the trunk of a car – and under what circumstances.
Vass isn’t a member of any academic academies. He points out that his background is so diverse – he wouldn’t know which one to join.
Re-Direct. Ashton asks if he has a financial interest in the case – Vass says not at all.
Vass says that when he sought out a control sample – he tried to get the most contaminated sample he could find – that’s why they went to a junkyard.
Neither Blue Star nor Febreeze contain chloroform.
Ashton asks about the possibility tht the stains on the paper towels being meat – Vass says that the paper towels would have to contain raw meat, pounds of it, contain high amounts of mammalian fat and be left in the trunk for quite a while – it couldn’t come from someone wiping their hands or face after eating a hamburger.
Since Vass had never studied a person decomposing in a trunk before – he looked around for a positive control. They were able to find another case in Montana where a child had died and was wrapped in a blanket and left in the trunk of a car for three months. Vass says that the time frame was much longer, but the point of that control was to confirm that the compounds that they found in Casey’s trunk could be formed int hat type of environment. 4 of the 5 substances were also present in the control sample – the one that wasn’t was chloroform.
Baez re-crosses: The paper towels were found in the trash bag. Baez asks the doctor if he has first hand knowledge if the paper towels have anything to do with the stain in the car. Vass says he doesn’t know. Baez asks if he knows if the paper towels were consistent with cleaning a counter. Vass says there was no meat on the paper towels. Baez asks if there were fatty acids, and Vass says yes – fatty acids consistent with the breakdown of muscle and tissue. Baez asks if fat is found in meat – the doctor says yes.
The witness is excused.
The jury leaves, and the state seeks from the court to quash the subpoena the defense has served on Dr. Vass to obtain his database.