Casey Anthony’s mother, Cindy, may have turned her daughter’s murder trial on its head when she testified late Thursday afternoon that she, not Casey, used the family’s computer to search for “chloroform” on the Internet.
Prosecutors have said from the opening statements that two-year-old Caylee Anthony died after her mother used chloroform to subdue her, then put duct tape over her nose and mouth. A key piece of evidence was Internet searches on the Anthony family computer. Prosecutors allege that Casey searched how to make homemade chloroform while she was planning to kill her daughter.
As defense lawyers continued to hammer away at forensic evidence, this time trying to raise doubts about hairs found in Casey Anthony’s trunk, the drama again centered on events taking place outside of the Orlando courtroom where Anthony stands trial for the murder of her two-year-old daughter Caylee.
When defense lawyer Jose Baez put Cindy Anthony on the stand, she shocked the courtroom as well as the jurors, according to witness descriptions (jurors are not allowed to be shown on the courtroom’s live feed). “I was searching for ‘chlorophyll’ because I was worried that it might affect my dogs,” Cindy testified. “I was worried about them eating bamboo.” Prosecutors had also drawn attention to web searches for “chest injuries” and “neck breaking,” claiming that they spoke to Casey’s homicidal intentions and state of mind. Cindy took responsibility for those searches, too, saying she searched about injuries after a friend was in a car crash and searched about broken necks when she saw a YouTube video about a skateboarder doing a “neck-breaking stunt.”
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While technology and skillful analysis has enabled investigators to recover even long-deleted computer data, Cindy’s testimony highlights the most glaring weakness in digital forensics. “The one piece that [investigators] can’t do is put the person at the computer, but there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence you can use,” Erin Nealy Cox, head of the Dallas office of digital forensics firm Stroz Friedberg, told TIME. Prosecutors had tried to tie Casey to the computer and minimize the doubt that she conducted the searches. But Cindy’s testimony blew a hole in even the most compelling circumstantial evidence when she admitted that the desktop computer is in an open room and that her family and even her neighbors use the terminal.
The development could be an enormous blow to the prosecution for three reasons. First, the digital searches are the foundation of the state’s case, the place where their timeline begins and were potentially some of the most compelling clues to Anthony’s alleged premeditation. Second, the testimony was sensational. After weeks of hearing dense, complicated forensic analysis, the jurors were described as leaning forward, riveted. Third, the revelation comes late in the case and could cause the jury to question other evidence they’ve heard, but may not have completely bought.
The reversal on the digital evidence was the second of a double blow to the prosecution on Thursday. When prosecutors appeared to be shifting the burden of proof for evidence onto a defense witness, Judge Belvin Perry, Jr. sent the jury from the courtroom, and when they returned, he reminded them that the prosecution has the ultimate burden of proof, which must exist beyond a reasonable doubt. After today, more and more vapor may be leaking out of what was far from an airtight case.
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