You could tell from the moment he took the stand that Dr. Arpad Vass was going to be more than just your usual witness. A senior research scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, he tested air and carpet samples for the state of Florida in its case against Casey Anthony. Human decomposition odor analysis is a relatively new science, and by that, I mean it's never been used in a trial before. Before this one, that is, and it's also another notch in the resume of State Attorney Jeff Ashton. His first claim to fame was way back in 1987. While prosecuting a rape case, he was the first in the country to use DNA evidence successfully in a trial.
Arpad Vass is a veritable who's who of -ologies, meaning he's got a ton of scientific studies under his belt. He's the somebody in Body Farm, located in Knoxville, Tennessee, where over 1,100 human remains and countless pigs have been used as test subjects. They are left outside in all sorts of conditions; hot, cold, wet, and dry weather, above ground, below ground and everywhere in between.
While he described the work he does in scientific terms, for the most part, he skirted language most of us would consider urbane and undecipherable. Sure, there's 100 trillion cells in our bodies. Yes, he told us all about the chemical breakdown of soft tissue and how fluids leak out in different stages.
Dr. Vass is the man who lives in a world of cellular metabolism, arterial degeneration, bloating from gas and active decay, and he thrives on it! Who better to teach you that inorganic compounds could determine how long a person has been dead? He's the guy who took a whiff inside the can containing a piece of trunk carpet from Casey's car – that made him push back so far away from it, he almost took out a wall. Is human decomposition odor unique? You bet, according to him. Dead pigs smell sweeter.
Vass sent OCSO Crime Scene Unit assistant supervisor Michael Vincent the portable air pump and test tubes for collecting samples from the Pontiac Sunfire. Along with the hundreds of chemicals found, Vass found unusually high levels of chloroform in some of the samples. So high, he and his team were shocked by the level. One of the tests he performed on a junk car that held a body came in at a respectable 5,000 units of measure. Casey's car had a chloroform level that surpassed 16,000,000 units.
As bad as that seems, Jose Baez did a very respectable job of cross-examining the good doctor. Vass is not a chemist, yet his Facebook page (that turned out not to be his) and Wikipedia profile call him one. While Baez is no chemist, either, he continued to pound away at the doctor and managed to get him a little unhinged at times. That may be a strong word to use, but in any event, Vass continued to rebound. On one occasion, the defense attorney asked the scientist about using divining rods to seek out hidden graves, and the response was remarkable. He thinks outside the box! Of course, Judge Perry wouldn't let the topic of electronic leashes for flies into the equation, but Baez did get him to admit to an olfactory observation that human decomposition is “amazingly similar to a decomposing potato.”
No doubt, Dr. Vass has a great personality and a matching sense of humor. Clearly, he connected with the jury. Overall, he and Baez both did well, but Vass got his message across. There's no way the jury's going to strike the odor of death, the off-the-chart chloroform reading in the air samples, and the searches for "how to make chloroform" on the Anthony's home computer. Taken all together, these three pieces of evidence could be a recipe for conviction.
Please limit comments to the blog's subject matter. Comments containing profanity and/or personal attacks will not be published.