Tag Archive for forensics

How Insects Tell Time

This is a rough draft that is longer than I want, but I also wanted to let people know the site is, well, if not well, it is alive. Edits and photos to come in the next day or so. Promise.
As anyone who has ever attended a picnic on a warm summer afternoon can attest, insects, particularly flies, have an almost uncanny ability to show up whenever food is around.
As we watch these arthropods buzz from potato salad to Jello to the plate that once held a hot dog, if we think about it at all, we probably assume that these unwelcome guests are looking for food. This assumption is only partly correct. While adult female flies do feed, their primary objective, programmed into their genetic make-up, is to find the proper environment to propagate their species. When flies crash our picnics, they come in search of carrion – dead, decaying flesh – in which to lay their eggs.
Insects are creatures of rigid habit and limited preferences. They are very specific about when and where they will lay their eggs, and the larvae that emerge and mature from those eggs do so according to well-documented rules. Because of the regularity and measurability of an insect life cycle, when forensic entomologists – scientists who use insects to help solve crimes – can control for other variables like weather, moisture, and clothing, they can use the information left behind by bugs to provide police with guidance about time of death, whether a body was moved, and other essentials. Forensic entomology requires its experts to make qualified “guesses” based on circumstances, but more often than not, a careful reading of the signs left behind by bugs can help catch a killer.
The idea of using insect activity as a means to catch criminals is not new. In the Yuan Dynasty (around 1300 A.D.), a Chinese mandarin named Sung T’zu made the first recorded observations of the usefulness of insects in solving crimes. Sung, who was responsible for investigating mysterious deaths for his emperor, wrote in one of the earliest criminology works, poetically entitled Washing Away of Wrongs, that “during the hot months, if maggots have not yet appeared at the nine orifices [of the body], but they have appeared at the temples, hairline, rib cage, or belly, then these parts have been injured.” 

Half a world away and 700 years later, a man who had very likely never heard of Sung T’zu or even the more recent concept of forensic entomology drove his vehicle with the bodies of two children he had just murdered into an empty field next to a rural Ohio township cemetery. 

As the killer took the naked bodies of 11-year-old India Smith and her 4-year-old half-brother Cody from the car and laid them in the tall grass, he wasn’t thinking about how within minutes, dozens of blow flies would be able to pick up the smell of death and follow it to the culvert separating the hayfield from the small Ohio grave yard. As he carefully arranged the corpses, he wasn’t aware that the hot, dry summer had caused the tall grass to hold its seeds longer than usual, or how the seeds that he would unknowingly carry away with him would link him to this particular site. 

Instead, the killer was thinking that eventually these bodies would be found, and when they were, their location and position would send a very clear message: A twisted message of anger and revenge that he wanted to deliver loud and clear.

The Children are Missing

Kevin Neal told police he was cleaning up inside the far house on Knight Road in rural Champaign County, Ohio, when he realized that he no longer heard the children playing in the yard. It was about 1:30 p.m. on July 9, 1997. He told authorities that he looked for the children for about half an hour, then picked up the phone and called police to report them missing. 

“One minute they were there, the next they were gone,” he would say later. 

On the phone with the 911 dispatcher, Neal made a curious request. He asked the dispatcher to call his wife at work because she would be less upset hearing about the situation from an authority figure than from him. Champaign County sheriff’s deputies, their plans to spend the day eradicating marijuana fields scuttled by fog in Columbus that kept their helicopters grounded, arrived on the scene within minutes and the hunt for the missing children began in earnest. 

Shortly after that, Sue Neal, the mother of the two children, drove up and leapt out of her car. She made a beeline for Kevin, screaming over and over, “What the – have you done with my kids!” She was so emotional that she had to be restrained by deputies so she would not physically assault her husband. Apart from each other, Kevin and Sue Neal told similar stories about the home situation. 

All was not well at the farmhouse the Neals were renting. The morning that India and Cody disappeared, before Sue went to work, she fought with Kevin over their mutual infidelities and had issued an ultimatum. She wanted him to move out or she would make plans to move herself. Kevin continued to cooperate with authorities, and as the media learned of the missing children and began reporting the story, the couple presented a united front in public. 

While searchers began combing the area in an ever-widening radius looking for the children, police began to piece together the family dynamic that existed in the house on Knight Road. 

It turned out that the only child permanently living with Kevin and Sue Neal was Cody Smith, Sue’s youngest child. Cody’s father was Gary McGraw, while India Smith and her sister, Britney, were Sue’s children with her ex-husband, Rick Smith. Rick and Sue divorced in 1995, and he was awarded custody of the girls. India and Britney spent the week of June 29 with their mother. Then Britney returned home, and India was to spend the week of July 6 with the Neals. When she came home, Britney would return to the Neals for a week. 

With so many complex relationships, it was inevitable that conflict would arise. Both Gary McGraw and Rick Smith found it difficult to be civil with the Neals. The difficulties with the Neals did give rise to problems with noncustodial visits, both men said.

Over the course of four days, Champaign County Sheriff David L. Deskins coordinated a search of the area surrounding the Neals’ rented farmhouse using police, dogs, and hundreds of volunteers. But it was as if the children had simply stepped off the planet. 

Deskins said he was using four theories to determine his actions: first, the children were lost and wandering; second, that family members had knowledge they did not share; third, someone else was keeping the children in “protective custody”; fourth, a stranger abducted them. 

“We’re pursuing all four equally, but the possibility of the first scenario is diminishing,” Deskins told members of the media who were covering the search. 

While volunteers combed the fields and woods, other investigators began looking at family members. Everyone was brought in for questioning and polygraph examinations. Rick Smith and Gary McGraw both took lie detector tests and passed. The tests for Sue and Kevin were inconclusive. 

On July 13, Deskins was forced to call off the search when it became obvious that the children had not simply wandered away.

In an interview with the Columbus Dispatch, a tearful Rick Smith continued to hold out hope that his daughter would come home alive, but did address the unspeakable.”They stopped the search but they’ll continue the investigation,” Smith said. “Now they wait for someone to make a move.” 

His daughter was much too bright to simply get lost, Smith maintained, which left him with little hope. “Something happened to Indy,” he said. 

The sheriff’s official in charge of the scene, Sgt. Chuck Stroud, was equally emotional when he notified searchers that their services were no longer needed.”They’re no longer the kids,” Stroud said. “They’re our kids. But, I’m out of places to go. There’s nothing more I can do here.” 

Behind the Scenes

After he had all but eliminated the possibility that India and Cody had just walked off and gotten lost, Deskins was confronted with the strong probability that the two children were no longer alive. His four scenarios now narrowed to three – a stranger’s abduction, a lying family member or a “protective custody” abduction. 

Deskins had to accept the fact that most child kidnappings by strangers that go on as long as this case usually end up turning into homicide investigations. A family member who was withholding information more than a week into the investigation was also very likely trying to cover up a murder. The best-case scenario appeared to be a custody-related dispute. 

Publicly, Deskins refused to commit to any single scenario. Privately, circumstantial evidence was mounting against Kevin Neal.The weightiest piece of circumstantial evidence was Neal’s criminal past. He had a 1983 rape conviction and he was scheduled to go to trial in Indianapolis on July 28, 1997, in connection with an incident where police said he tied up a female neighbor, held her a gun point and threatened to rape her. 

Then there was the problem with Neal’s time line. He told investigators that he had started calling for the children at about 1:15 p.m., before calling 911 at 1:52 p.m. However, two farmhands working nearby both told police that they had been outside during that same time for 30 to 40 minutes and had not seen Neal looking for the children or heard him calling.Furthermore, when sheriff’s deputies arrived at the house, there were no toys in the yard or any other indications that children had been outside playing, as he had claimed. That, combined with neighbors’ statements that they had not seen or heard the children playing all morning, made Kevin Neal a prime suspect. Deskins also learned through interviews that Neal was so strict with the children that they wouldn’t leave the porch of the house without permission. 

Neal was also unable to account for approximately six hours between telephone calls he made to his aunt, looking for a place to stay. During those telephone calls, the aunt, Carolyn Gragg, noted that she did not hear the sounds of children, the usual background noise during calls from Kevin. 

Just as damning was the fact that Neal had told investigators that a Bonneville automobile parked near the house didn’t work and hadn’t been driven in more than a month because the brakes were shot. The farmhands were willing to testify that when they arrived at the scene, the Bonneville was not present. 

A search warrant was issued for the car, and it was taken to a local garage, where a mechanic was asked to examine it. When the tow truck arrived to take the vehicle away, the truck operator slowly backed the vehicle out of its storage spot and surprised everyone when he instinctively applied the brake and the car stopped. When it was put on a lift at the garage, the mechanic found a set of vise grips sealing a brake line as some sort of temporary fix. 

Sexual Predator

At various times, police asked Neal to provide written statements with details of the activities in the home from the time Sue Neal left for work at 6:30 a.m. until he phoned 911. The declarations contained glaring inconsistencies. In the first statement, Neal said India was asleep on a couch, but awoke to kiss her mother goodbye. Cody was asleep in his bedroom and did not awaken, he claimed. In another written account, Neal said Cody woke up, talked to his mother and then went back to bed. Both statements indicated that the children were given breakfast at around 10:30 a.m. The children played inside until noon, when they went outside. 

As family and friends gathered for a prayer service to petition for the children’s safe return, investigators began to lean on Kevin Neal. But Neal proved to be a tough nut to crack and was adamant about not being responsible for the disappearances.Less than three weeks after his stepchildren disappeared, Kevin Neal pleaded guilty to one count of sexual battery and one count of criminal confinement in a Marion County, Indiana, courthouse. He was sentenced to a term of three to 15 years in prison and ordered to register as a sexual predator. 

When he began serving his sentence at the end of July, the children still had not been found. Eventually, Kevin Neal would use his custodial status as an alibi that he claimed would prove him incapable of killing his stepchildren. 

Bodies in the Cemetery

Andy Stickley had already mowed the strips of hay around his Nettle Creek farm twice during the summer of 1997, once before the disappearance of India and Cody, and a second time about three weeks after they had vanished. On September 6, he was out on his tractor again mowing the band of hay that bordered the corn and soybean crops he and his father had planted. The first time around the field, Andy noticed a rotten smell in the air as he neared the part of the farm that bordered Nettle Creek Cemetery. 

“I just kind of made a mental note of it, and I thought ‘I’m going to check that out,'” he would later testify in court. “I kind of forgot about it then until I was finishing up the field.” 

After making a last sweep around the field, Stickley was reminded of his mental note when he again passed through the putrid smell of death. He stopped the tractor and got off to investigate. 

“I got off and I started walking,” he testified. “I couldn’t see anything. And when I got in (the cemetery) a little bit further, I could see something brown. It looked like a leg. I thought it was a deer at first. And then I kind of walked another step closer and that is when I saw the two small human skulls.” 

Stickley said he felt “a needle shot through my body” and he quickly backed out of the crime scene, got on his tractor and called authorities to report that he had “found the two bodies that I presume were Cody and India.” 

India Smith, who would have celebrated her 12th birthday the following day, was lying on her back, her legs spread in a sexually provocative position, less than 100 feet from the grave of Sue Neal’s mother. 

Sheriff David Deskins and Harry Trombitas, an FBI Special Agent, made the drive to Indiana to interview Kevin Neal while crime-scene experts gathered evidence at the cemetery. On the way over, they decided only to tell him that the children “had been found” to see how he reacted. Neal surprised even the two experienced law enforcement officials. 

“I guess if they were walking around, you would have told me,” he replied after digesting the news. After he was told that they were dead, Neal stood up, silently pushed in his chair, and asked the corrections officer to take him back to his cell, leaving Deskins and Trombitas simply staring at each other in shock. They had expected that at least he would have asked where or how the children had been found. The person who killed them, of course, wouldn’t need that information. 

Left to the forces of nature and unimpeded by the sentimental attempts by society to slow the inevitable entropy that accompanies every manner of death, a body is very active after a person dies. While poets may note the stillness and peaceful appearance of the dead, in fact, postmortem activity begins almost immediately to break down the corpse into its component parts in a process that can continue, under certain circumstances, for years.
In the case of India and Cody, even before their bodies were moved from the site where they were killed, decomposition began the moment they ceased to live. This decomposition, which begins as autolysis when the body’s cells begin to digest themselves, is determined by physical laws based on the variables of temperature, body mass, manner of death and other factors, but generally follows a distinct process. Investigators can use this information to help answer many questions about a death. 

One of the most important concepts of a proper forensic investigation is determining the postmortem interval (PMI), or the time elapsed from the onset of death to discovery of the corpse. 

The Stages of Death

“It is practical to divide this postmortem interval into arbitrary stages, with the understanding that these stages frequently overlap and are poorly defined temporally,” writes forensic pathologist Glenn M. Larkin, M.D. in Forensic Sciences

“The evaluation of changes that occur in a body after death is important for several reasons: it may be helpful in estimating the length of the postmortem interval (time since death) and, therefore, the actual time of death … and postmortem changes may be helpful in evaluating the accuracy or reliability of witness statements and other information,” write pathologists Randy Hazlik and Michael A. Graham in Forensic Pathology in Criminal Cases. 

Each body passes through a series of stages, but as noted previously, the many variables make only broad generalizations possible. Different scientists have their own personal preferences for the names of these stages. For example, Hazlik and Graham describe three stages: Early: “demonstrable onset in minutes to hours after death”; advancing: “…days to weeks after death”; and advanced: “usually apparent weeks or more after death.” 

Noted forensic entomologist M. Lee Goff of the University of Hawaii uses a five-stage model (fresh, bloated, decay, post-decay and skeletal). Another common classification described by Larkin divides the stages into “perimortem, early postmortem, and decomposition.” 

When Andy Stickley found the bodies of India and Cody in the Nettle Creek Cemetery that September day, the children had by every definition passed into the last stages of post-mortem activity. Trace evidence linking them to their killer would be difficult to find because the remains had been exposed to the elements of a hot Ohio summer. Nature had taken its course and left investigators little to work with. But nature is subject to physical laws, and the investigators called in to trace the children’s killer knew this. The key to catching the murderer would depend on a careful reading of the clues Mother Nature had left behind. 

The Bureau of Criminal Identification

In Ohio, the state Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, a division of the Attorney General’s Office, is available to assist police departments that do not have criminalists on staff to process crime scenes. BCI also functions as a central crime laboratory for examining all types of evidence, from fingerprints to DNA samples, or tire marks to computer hard drives. 

BCI Special Agent Eva Hall was on duty September 6, 1997, when she received a call to assist the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office with a crime scene at the Nettle Creek Cemetery. She had already been involved in processing other evidence related to the children’s disappearance, visiting the Neal homestead back in July, shortly after India and Cody vanished, to collect trace evidence as suspicion fell on Kevin Neal. Now she had the sad task of ensuring that the recovery of the children’s bodies was performed according to crime scene protocols. 

When she arrived at the cemetery around 5 p.m. that evening, the area had already been cordoned off by yellow crime scene tape. She noted that the area where the bodies were found was “a heavily wooded area. On first glance you couldn’t really see anything in there.” 

Hall later testified that it would not have been possible to properly extricate the bodies until a deputy used a machete to chop down some of the high weeds around them. After she took photographs of the crime scene and some of the weeds had been cleared, Hall began the process of recovering the bodies. She noted how India’s body had been deliberately posed in a sexual pose.”The larger of the two bodies was lying on its back on top of some discarded fencing,” she said. “The one leg was lying straight across the fence post straight out, and the other leg – the left leg is bent at an angle laying on its side so the pelvic region would be exposed at that point.” 

After donning coveralls to avoid contaminating the crime scene, Hall and two other BCI agents began the process of recovering the bodies. Using garden trowels, they loosened the dirt surrounding the remains, taking samples of the soil for examination purposes later. 

“When a body decomposes,” Hall told the court, “fluids tend to seep down and that is why it was necessary to loosen the bodies from the dirt. We tried not to disturb the bones in the way the bodies were found … during our retrieval, so we were able to lift the bodies with the shovels and also a lot of dirt.” 

The agents lifted the bodies and laid them out on the body bag. At the same time, they collected other biological evidence at the scene, including some of the many insects the investigators encountered. 

“There was quite a bit of insect activity, and at the time we also collected a sampling of the different bugs and made sure when we moved the body we tried not to disturb the bugs at that time.” 

The bodies were taken to the regional crime lab, where a forensic pathologist would conduct autopsies. 

Manner of Death

Although there are an infinite number of ways to die, the medico-legal community recognizes just four manners of death: accident, natural causes, suicide and homicide. The task of the team of medical examiners, coroners, technicians and scientists who took possession of the children’s remains was to determine which of these manners appropriately accounted for the deaths of India and Cody. While they play an essential part of the criminal investigation process, coroners do not have the legal jurisdiction to determine whether or not a death is the result of a crime. After all, “homicide” simply means death at the hands of another person and does not imply criminal activity. For example, the manner of death for an executed criminal is listed as “homicide.” The responsibility to determine whether or not a crime has occurred and requires the involvement of the criminal justice system lies with the county prosecutor or district attorney. 

Because Champaign County is a smaller rural county, autopsies are performed by forensic pathologists on call with the Miami Valley Crime Laboratory, where in the case of India and Cody Smith, Montgomery County Deputy Coroner Lee Lehman, a veteran of more than 2,000 autopsies, was put in charge of the examination. 

Based on the circumstantial evidence surrounding the discovery of their bodies, their youth and medical histories, the pathologist quickly ruled out suicide, accident and natural causes as being responsible for ending the lives of the two children. As he stated in court, Dr. Lehman considered it highly unlikely – based on the history he compiled, the examination and the circumstances – “that they walked in (the cemetery) naked and died a natural death together.” 

“They died of undetermined – which means, I don’t know – homicidal violence,” he would later testify. “In other words, they were killed.” 

Having determined the manner of death, Lehman and his team turned toward gathering evidence to assist in finding out the cause of their deaths, and hopefully, the identity of their killer. The team had not been left much to work with. In fact, Lehman had to call in a forensic anthropologist from a nearby college to assist in determining the genders of the bodies. Confirmation of the children’s identities was made through dental records.Their skulls had been completely stripped of flesh – skeletonized is the term pathologists use. The skin on India’s chest, abdomen and legs was still present, but exposure to the sun and wind had caused it to dry out and become leather-like in a process known as mummification. During mummification, nature “embalms” and preserves the corpse in a manner resembling the human ritual that creates a mummy. In fact, it is impossible from visual inspection to determine the post-mortem interval of a mummified body – absent any other clues, India could have been dead as long as King Tut. 

But there were other clues present. The little girl’s body was infested with insects, which Lehman and his colleagues collected and preserved. The medical team carefully sifted through the material in the body bag, separating India from the dirt, flora and fauna that had accompanied her into the morgue. Some of her neck bones were missing, while others indicated animal activity – canine teeth marks and such. 

The toxicology report came back indicating India had a blood-alcohol content of .02 percent. Although this may surprise a layman, the pathologists expected such a result. Just as with grapes turning to wine, the decay process of a body often leads to sugar fermentation within the body; as bacteria break down cellular material, one of the byproducts is ethyl alcohol. The tox screen also revealed that the girl had not been poisoned. 

There were also no telltale marks on the corpses to indicate that a weapon had been used to kill the children. Nature had left more flesh on Cody’s remains than on India’s, but neither his mummified soft tissue nor the bones on either child showed evidence of obvious entry or exit points for bullets or scratches on their bones that a knife blade would normally leave. There was not any flesh on the children’s skulls to examine for the typical signs of asphyxiation, but the coroner’s opinion was that some manner of asphyxia was the cause of the children’s deaths. 

This conclusion was supported later by the forensic entomologists who would review the case. The entomologists did so by examining how the insects had consumed the flesh of the bodies. Following the doctrine espoused by Sung T’zu, they expected the skulls to be skeletonized and bleached by the sun – after all, there were so many orifices on the head where the blow flies would lay their eggs. The lack of clothing also gave the insects access to the children’s genital regions, which meant that the feeding larvae would eat their way up through their abdomens to their chest cavities. 

If there had been knife or bullet wounds, the pattern of insect consumption would have been different because wounds are even more attractive places for oviposition (egg laying). It isn’t unusual for one hand to be skeletonized or at least infested with insects while the other is untouched. Wily investigators will know that this indicates the victim probably had defensive wounds on the hand that attracted the insects.One other clue led Lehman to believe that the children had been dead for some time when their bodies were found. 

“One thing that was interesting … from the point of view of a forensic pathologist is that where the bodies are lying the grass is dead,” Lehman said. “It’s like if you leave something on your lawn … for a long time, the grass disappears. The same thing has happened where these two bodies were lying.” 

Much later in the criminal justice process, another expert would dispute this assumption, pointing out that decaying fatty tissue will kill vegetation much quicker than Lehman estimated. In the end, Lehman, based on his 14 years as a pathologist, was convinced the children had been dead “an extended period of time.” 

“You have a skeletonized – completely skeletonized – head, very decomposed body,” he told Assistant Attorney General R. Daniel Reif. “Everything points to someone who had been dead for an extended period of time.” 

How extended, asked Reif, who was on loan from the state Attorney General’s Capital Crimes section to assist Champaign County Prosecutor Nick Selvaggio with the case. 

“It’s consistent with two months,” Lehman said. “Anything less than that is less probable or less likely.” 

“We Are Not in a Rush”

In late September 1997, days after nearly 300 people said farewell to India and Cody in a “Celebration of Life,” Sheriff Deskins held a press conference and warned the public that any arrest in the case might be months in the future. 

“We want to make sure we are correct,” Deskins said. “We are not in a rush. We are not going to be pressured into naming suspects ahead of time. We’re doing this in a checklist fashion.” 

Deskins and Prosecutor Nick Selvaggio had no reason to hurry – they knew exactly where their only suspect was, and Kevin Neal wasn’t going anywhere for a long time. 

Deskins told the media that forensic evidence was central to the investigation and that meant waiting for lab results. 

“We have a great deal of evidence submitted to different laboratories. This will be a case of waiting for results,” he said. 

While botanists were examining seeds found in a blanket recovered by BCI Agent Hall from Cody’s bed and on blue jeans worn by Kevin Neal the day the children disappeared, some of the nation’s best forensic entomologists were studying the various species of insects found in the siblings’ remains to establish a time of death. The FBI was examining some blood stains found on a sheet in the Neal home. 

Other detectives were talking to friends and family of the Neals, looking for more conventional clues to help strengthen the case. The prosecution has no obligation to establish a motive for a crime in order to secure a conviction, but juries often expect to hear an answer to the central question of “why.” In a case like the one the authorities were building against Kevin Neal, a motive was critical.The evidence against Neal was mounting, but it was all circumstantial. There was no direct evidence linking him or anyone else to the crime – no “smoking gun,” no bloody knife with the murderer’s fingerprints, no eyewitnesses. Murder convictions had been achieved with nothing more than a circumstantial case, killers had even been put to death without direct evidence of their guilt. Still, although courts instruct jurors to give equal weight to direct and circumstantial evidence, the lack of a direct link can be troubling for some juries. 

Building the state’s case against Neal would take almost two years and involve nearly 5,000 pages of investigatory records and interviews with more than 170 persons. The case had long fallen off the front pages of the newspapers when Selvaggio announced in May 1999 that a Champaign County grand jury had indicted Kevin Neal on 11 criminal counts ranging from murder to kidnapping to gross abuse of a corpse in connection with the murders of his stepchildren. Selvaggio said he would seek the death penalty. 

During his arraignment, Neal told his wife that he was innocent and that his accusers owed him an apology. 

“You know damn good and well in your heart I didn’t do this,” Kevin Neal said before the brief hearing. “I’ll prove it.” 

“I don’t owe you nothing,” Sue Neal replied. 

To others, Sue Neal shared some of the blame. 

“You shouldn’t marry a rapist,” said Rick Smith. “If you are a rapist, you shouldn’t be allowed to get with someone that’s got kids.” 

“Hurt Someone They Love”

It would be another year before Kevin Neal stood trial for the murders of India and Cody. Declared indigent by Champaign County Common Pleas Court Judge Roger Wilson, Neal was defended by three attorneys from the state Public Defender’s Office led by Gregory Meyers, senior attorney in the Office’s capital crimes section. 

After denying a motion to change the venue of the trial out of the small county west of Columbus, Ohio, Wilson had his clerk send out juror questionnaires to 500 residents on the voter registration rolls. In the weeks leading up to the trial, Wilson, Meyers and Prosecutor Nick Selvaggio pared the list down somewhat by excluding the potential jurors with obvious conflicts. Finally, in mid-April 2000, the remaining potential jurors, veniremen in legal parlance, were summoned for the selection process. 

Taking the veniremen a dozen at a time, the sides narrowed the group down to 12 jurors and three alternates. The care exercised in finding an unbiased jury was evident. The court needed a group that was not affected by the massive pre-trial publicity, was capable of weighing only the facts placed in evidence and who could recommend the death penalty if necessary. In the transcript of Kevin Neal’s trial, the eight-day jury selection process – voir dire – takes up more than 2,000 pages. 

On May 11, 2000, the trial of Kevin Neal began with the jurors taking a trip to the Neal farmhouse and the cemetery where the children were found. Following the jury view, they heard the opening statements of Selvaggio and Assistant Public Defender Marc Tripplett. In his opening, Selvaggio laid out the basis of the State’s case. 

“India and Cody did not simultaneously die of natural death or disease. They were murdered,” Selvaggio said. “India was left to rot on top of discarded fence posts lying on her back, and little brother Cody was found lying with his back next to his big sister. India and Cody did not casually walk into a wooded area, take off their clothes, and lay down and die. The killer left (them) to Mother Nature’s care.” 

For the first time, the public learned about Sue and Kevin Neal’s marital problems, and their mutual accusations of infidelity. The jury also heard Selvaggio provide the state’s theory about motive: Revenge. When Neal, serving a brief sentence in the Champaign County jail, learned his wife had “laid under another man” (Neal’s words), he was asked by another inmate if he planned on beating up the man who slept with his wife. Neal said no and added, “the way you hurt someone who has hurt you is to hurt someone they love,” Selvaggio told jurors during his opening statement. 

Even more damaging to the defense, Selvaggio promised that the state would present testimony from three witnesses who would swear that Kevin Neal made incriminating statements about himself. 

The morning of the murder, Selvaggio said, Neal called his aunt, Carolyn Gragg, and told her “something terrible had happened” and that he was considering suicide. The next day, after a day of intense questioning by authorities followed by a night of heavy drinking, Neal told Sue Neal’s sister, Libby Wyatt, “Libby, I might as well just confess so all this will stop and get it over with. The only thing I’m afraid of is the death penalty.” Finally, Selvaggio said Neal told another woman that he “took the whole blame” for the children’s disappearance, adding, “I couldn’t walk to the electric chair.” 

Tripplett responded in his opening statement by pointing out there was no physical evidence linking Kevin Neal – or anyone else – to the crime. Later, Meyers would question the accuracy of Gragg’s recollection of the conversation she had with Neal, who insisted to his attorneys that he had not said “something terrible had happened,” but that he told Aunt Carolyn that “he was in deep shit” because Sue Neal wanted him out of her home. 

“This is a case about earnest police efforts that simply reached … a very wrong conclusion,” Tripplett said in his opening statement. “Before (the day the children vanished) was over, sheriff’s deputies and others began to point an accusing finger at Kevin Neal despite the lack of any indication of wrongdoing on his part,” he said. The state “cannot show you how these children died, when these children died, and cannot show you where they were killed. And yet he will want you to supply the who – Mr. Neal.” 

After using Champaign County deputies who were the first responders to the scene after Kevin Neal called 911 to establish the mood and overview of the early stages of the investigation, Selvaggio quickly introduced the little physical evidence produced in the two-year probe. He called agents from BCI, who collected bedding and clothes from the Neal home. When they were collecting evidence, three items were of particular interest to investigators: a sheet with stains that were determined to be blood belonging to India, a pair of blue jeans worn that day by Kevin Neal, and a blue blanket taken from Cody’s bed. Agents later learned that India was entering puberty and there were no signs of struggle in the area where the sheet was found, so they could draw no inferences from that finding. 

The blue blanket and the jeans, however, contained evidence in the form of seeds that tied them to the cemetery. Because forensic botany is such a specific subspecialty, there was no one at the BCI lab who had knowledge enough to interpret the significance of the seeds. Instead, the agents contacted two specialists who would be able to shed some light on just what inferences could be drawn from the evidence.While the children were still missing, criminalists at the Knight Road home found large, burr-like seeds attached to the blanket and much smaller seeds in the pockets of Kevin’s jeans. Working from the premise that knowing the type of seeds they had found could point investigators toward the location of the children, an agent from BCI took the evidence to Seed Technology, Inc., a private laboratory that contracted with the Ohio Department of Agriculture on seed purity issues.The larger seed was determined to be Galium aperine, or catchweed bedstraw. The smaller seed was from the genus Poa, and was identified as Kentucky bluegrass. While bluegrass will propagate through the air, Galium aperine does not, and is transferred from the bedstraw plant to the coat of a passing animal and eventually to the ground. The identification of the two seeds presented additional questions for investigators, as neither bedstraw nor mature Kentucky bluegrass was found at the Neal residence. If the plants were not present at the Neal farm, where did the seeds come from?The answer did not present itself until September 9, when the bodies were found in Nettle Creek Cemetery. 

After the cemetery crime scene had been secured, the investigators once again called on the experts at Seed Technology and a plant expert from Scott’s Lawn and Garden, Inc. to determine if bedstraw and bluegrass were present where the bodies were found. Working under klieg lights as the sun went down, Robert Hesson, the plant expert, and Anne Daniel from Seed Technology, scoured the crime scene in search of the plants.At first, the search was futile because Galium aperine is an extremely fragile weed and could have easily been destroyed by the many crime-scene workers who had trampled over the area. Hesson was on his knees looking near the bare spot where Cody and India were found, and when he stood up, Daniel noticed a seed had attached itself to his blue jeans. It was Galium aperine. Almost immediately after that, Daniel’s husband noticed that her pants had picked up another Galium seed. Some time later, the experts located the remains of the Galium plant. 

Later Daniel and Hesson conducted a survey of the plants at the Knight Road property and found no Galium aperine. The team did find bluegrass; however, that particular grass only produces mature seeds after reaching a height of 12 to 18 inches and the shorter, mowed bluegrass at the Neal house was producing only immature seeds. The bluegrass at Nettle Creek Cemetery was producing mature seeds like those found in Neal’s pockets, Hesson testified.It was time for Selvaggio to move the heart of his case – using forensic entomology to establish when the children had died, and by inference, that Kevin Neal was still free when they were murdered. Selvaggio could not prove the means by which the children were murdered because of their advanced state of decay, but he could establish motive – revenge – and with the help of flies and maggots, he would prove opportunity. 

The fate of a fly is essentially determined by temperature. Anyone who has ever encountered a fly buzzing against a warm window on a bright, but cold, winter day, has witnessed the influence heat has on the insect. It may be barely above freezing outside, but the sunlight passing through a window has awakened a dormant fly by raising the temperature to such a point that the fly is fooled into “thinking” it is safe to emerge from stasis and become active. 

Under normal circumstances, as with other cold-blooded arthropods whose body temperatures are dependent on the environment, flies can only thrive if the temperature is between two extremes. Too cold and the fly dies or goes dormant, depending on where it stands in its life cycle. Too warm, and it rushes through its developmental stages too quickly and cannot reproduce. But if the temperature is just right, the life cycle of a fly is amazingly predictable – and useful to criminalists. 

Generally speaking, flies pass through six stages during their lives. Some of these stages can be further divided based on the activity of the insect. Flies start out as eggs, and hatch into first instar maggots – the beginning of the larval stage. Because maggots have a rigid exoskeleton, as the maggot feeds, it eventually must molt its smaller shell and thus passes into a second instar maggot. How quickly the maggot passes from first to second instar is – assuming there is food for it to eat – regulated by heat. As the maggot continues to eat, it grows, and again must molt, entering the third instar phase. This developmental phase can be divided into “feeding” and “migrating,” because after the maggot eats its fill, it begins looking for a dry place, safe from predators, where it can pupate, forming the cocoon that will allow it to transform into its adult phase. Maggots will travel hundreds of feet from their birthplace and feeding spot in order to find an acceptable place to pupate. Once the third-instar maggot finds this location, it develops a hard shell similar to a caterpillar cocoon and makes the final transition to adult fly. After it emerges from the cocoon, the fly spends several hours in the sun, inflating its wings, developing its coloring and hardening its final exoskeleton. If the adult fly is a female, after it is able to fly it begins the search for carrion to start the cycle all over again. 

The number of different fly species on the planet has never been calculated, but fortunately for forensic entomologists, the species that prefer carrion for food and oviposition are relatively few and often localized to a specific region of the country. In fact, it is not uncommon for scientists to be able to point out that a body has been moved from where it was killed because of the difference between “urban” and “rural” species. And just like different human cultures prefer different foods, necrophilous fly species vary in their preference for decaying flesh. Depending on what species are present (or not) and their stage of development, criminalists can make accurate estimates of the post-mortem interval. They can do this because of the flies’ dependence on temperature. 

Ideally, entomologists should be part of the initial crime scene investigation so that bug evidence can be collected and preserved correctly. The techniques that work for a collector who wants to pin his or her trophies to a card do not work in a criminal investigation. There are also chain-of-custody issues to be addressed and some methods of storing and preserving insect evidence are counter-intuitive to criminalists who may not have been instructed in how to properly collect bugs. 

If the presence of the entomologist is not possible at the crime scene, the next best chance to collect insects for examination is at the autopsy. Finally, a later visit to the scene where the body was found can yield important entomological evidence long after the scene has been cleared. The bottom line for investigators is that if evidence is not collected according to established protocols, the efforts of the best forensic entomologist will be for naught. “Entomological evidence must be properly recognized, collected, and preserved if such evidence is to be used in evaluations of death cases, writes pathologist Glenn Larkin. “It is only when the physical characteristics of the specimens are intact and properly preserved that an accurate determination to the species level can be accomplished by an entomologist.” 

At Nettle Creek Cemetery, and later during the autopsy, investigators gathered sufficient entomological evidence to allow Dr. Neal Haskell and Dr. Robert Hall – the former working for the state and the latter for Kevin Neal – to draw vastly different conclusions about the post-mortem interval (the time between Cody and India’s murders and the discovery of their bodies). It would be up to the jury, most of whom didn’t know the difference between a blow fly and a beetle, to decide which expert among two of the world’s top forensic entomologists was correct. 

How Flies Tell Time

When he received the evidence at his home in Rensselaer, Indiana, where he was on staff as a professor of forensic entomology and biology at St. Joseph’s College, Dr. Neal Haskell began his analysis by taking inventory of the shipment. At his direction following a conversation with detectives in Champaign County, Haskell was sent both live and preserved specimens of the insect fauna found at the body site, soil samples gathered at the scene and, equally important, from the body bags in which the cadavers were delivered to the medical examiner. 

He further instructed the detectives to send climatological data for the nearest National Weather Service station, which in this case was in Dayton, about 45 miles away from Nettle Creek Cemetery. Each of these components was necessary for Haskell to make an estimate of the minimum and maximum post-mortem interval.Entomologists use a technique called Accumulated Degree Days to measure fly development on a corpse. One of the most common necrophilic fly species is the blow fly, known formally as Phormia regina. Over the years, P. regina has been studied under carefully controlled environmental conditions, so scientists know, when temperature is controlled, just how long the species takes to go from newly deposited egg to first instar, to second and third instar and through the pupal stage to adult. 

“After the medicocriminal entomologist has calculated the degree-hours or degree-days available, this information can be applied to the template of known development of the species in question at a temperature regime similar to that recorded from the field,” writes Larkin. “The result will give an estimate of the time required for that fly to progress from the stage produced by the female (and deposited on the corpse) to the stage collected. 

This, then, is the minimum PMI – all else being equal, the corpse must have been dead for at least that period or the developing flies would not have been able to get to the noted point of maturity.” 

At a mean temperature of 20 degrees centigrade (68 degrees Fahrenheit), P. regina takes between 19 and 25 hours to hatch from a fresh egg. The average time for what entomologists call egg eclosion is 21.2 hours. 

To calculate Accumulated Degree Hours, an entomologist will multiply the number of degrees by the number of hours needed for eclosion. In other words, based on laboratory studies of P. regina, Haskell knew that on average, it takes 424 ADH (20 degrees C x 21.2 hours) for a blow fly to emerge from its egg. If the mean temperature at a crime scene is 25 degrees Celsius, the time for eclosion is simply calculated at 424 ADH divided by 25, or approximately 17 hours. 

Each stage of the blow fly’s life cycle has been calculated and tabulated for entomologists, so when Haskell examined his preserved specimens and found 40 or 50 puparia that had hatched, he knew he could calculate the maximum post-mortem interval – the earliest time the children had been dead. 

The fact that no P. regina were still present on the bodies told Haskell that “we had passed well beyond the time that the black blow fly would be active,” he would later testify. “It had done its thing at the early stage of decomposition, fed. They have done their thing and have long since been gone.”Although the blow flies had skeletonized the bodies – the maggots had eaten almost all of the soft tissue on Cody’s body and a large portion of India – there were still other species of flies who prefer more decomposed flesh that Haskell could use to firm up his PMI estimates. 

While Haskell was not surprised that there were no blow flies present, the fact that another species of fly, the secondary screwworm, or Cochliomyia macellaria, was also absent was especially significant. After all, the screwworm is just as adept at finding a corpse as a blow fly, and the two species prefer their carrion at similar stages. However, C. macellaria is a warm-latitude species that is killed off in northern climates when the weather turns cool. As the screwworm fly prefers fresh carrion, the absence of the fly indicates that it wasn’t present in the area when the children were killed. 

“It has to repopulate every spring as it warms up,” he told Selvaggio during the trial. 

Explaining that it takes several months for C. macellaria to reach a one-to-one ratio with P. regina – something at occurs in central Ohio around August – Haskell pointed out to the jury that the total absence of the screwworm meant the children had been dead long before the warm-weather fly arrived in Ohio. 

“It tells me what time of year the colonization occurred,” he told the court. 

“And what time would that be, sir?” Selvaggio asked. 

“It would be prior to mid-July.” 

Enter the Cheese Skipper

One additional species of fly, Piophila foveolata, helped Haskell determine an approximate date of death for the two children. Known by its common name, the cheese skipper fly, Piophilidae prefers carrion in a significantly decayed form. 

“Unlike the blow flies, which come in very, very quickly, the cheese skipper is one that likes more advanced decomposition,” Haskell testified. “They like it when it’s goopy and yucky and in a putrefaction state or beyond, in a liquefaction stage.” 

When he examined the tissue samples and the body bag soil, Haskell found “literally hundreds” of skipper larvae in the third instar – the final – larval stage. Using the Accumulated Degree Day method, he knew that to find larvae at that stage on September 6, 1997, meant that the adult skippers had to have visited the corpses between 45 and 90 days prior. That put the cheese skipper oviposition at July 23, 1997 at the latest. 

Selvaggio wanted to remind the jury of the skipper’s preferred carrion. 

“Is it possible, based on your finding of the specimens on that frozen tissue sample, that a body could have ….started its decomposition on July 23?” 

“No,” Haskell replied. “Because the cheese skipper needs a more advanced decomposition.” 

“How much time would these skippers need?” Selvaggio asked. 

“A minimum of a week, usually more.” Haskell replied. “It could be two or three weeks.” 

Combining the information – the disappearance of P. regina, which appears almost immediately upon death, the lack of secondary screwworms, which should have been present in the area in mid-to-late July, but who would not have laid eggs in a body in an advanced state of decay, and the third-instar cheese skippers that require a minimum of 45 days and advanced decay to thrive – Haskell explained to the jury that the earliest the children could have died was July 9 and the latest was July 14. 

After discussing the foliage and the stream around the crime scene to determine if Haskell took that into account when he came up with his time frame, Selvaggio returned to the main point he wanted to make. 

“Can you give us an opinion based on a reasonable degree of scientific certainty about how long India and Cody Smith had been located where they were subsequently found on September 6, 1997?” he asked. 

“Yes, I can,” Haskell replied. “And I believe it was between the 14th of July and the 9th of July.” 

The Secondary Screwworm in CourtDefense attorney Greg Meyers immediately homed in on Haskell’s assumption that the absence of the secondary screwworm was significant. 

“Is it your testimony that the secondary screwworm was not in this area of Ohio until on or after July 14 of that summer?” he asked. 

“No, that is not my testimony,” Haskell replied. “My testimony is that I did not find that in the combination of puparia with Phormia regina…There could have been one fly flying around here. I definitely did not say that it could not be present somewhere in this area.” 

“You are trying to prove the positive by the negative,” Meyers countered. “You are trying to prove the positive of July 14 by the negative – meaning the absence of the screwworm. Is that fair to your testimony?” 

Haskell stuck by his assumptions. 

“We have a positive with Phormia regina here by itself. And in the seasonal distribution study that I’ve done, we find that if we have Phormia regina by itself in the puparial stage that we would be sometime prior to mid-July.” 

Battle Over Bug Evidence

At the time of Kevin Neal’s trial, there were fewer than ten people in the United States who were board-certified by the American Board of Forensic Entomology, and the fact that two of the Board’s leading practitioners were testifying in his trial clearly demonstrated the importance of bug evidence in the case. Dr. Neal Haskell, who testified for the state, was one of the first people to ever study entomology for forensic purposes, and Dr. Robert Hall, who was about to take the stand to rebut his testimony, was the chair of the entomology department at the University of Missouri and had served on Haskell’s doctoral committee. 

To say that this was a battle of the field’s giants was not an understatement. 

Dr. Hall took the stand several days after Dr. Haskell testified, and the defense wasted no time in attacking Haskell’s conclusions. 

Unlike Dr. Haskell, who based his conclusions on the serial theory of insect activity – where scientists theorize that a corpse is colonized by successive “waves” of insects – Dr. Hall was only willing to accept the more conservative temperature-based model. In his opinion, the timing of when any particular species of arthropod would show up was simply too variable to use for drawing scientific conclusions. 

“Do you believe there is any conclusion that can be reached from the absence of the secondary screwworm at the same time that the pupa cases from the black blow fly are found at the scene?” defense attorney Marc Tripplett asked. 

Dr. Hall was quite blunt. “No.” 

Tripplett pushed the point further and asked Hall what conclusions he could draw based on the evidence that was present. 

“The only conclusion that I can reach is that the temperature development of the black blow fly is such that about 215 accumulated degree days on a base temperature of 10 (degrees Celsius) is required for that fly to go from the stage that the female deposits the egg, to the point at which the adult fly leaves the pupa case that then stays behind,” Hall answered. 

Assuming that the temperature at the Dayton airport accurately reflects the temperature at Nettle Creek Cemetery – a big assumption, the defense expert pointed out – Hall then said that he drew an entirely different PMI than Haskell did. 

“The decedents must have been at the site at least long enough for the insects to grow up at the stage collected, and that would have been from about the first week in September,” he said 

Cheese Skippers for the Defense

As for the cheese skippers, Hall disputed Haskell’s conclusions there, as well. Pointing out that his research showed that skippers are only known to be “not among the first arrivers,” Hall added, “How much later it arrives is open to question. There are no discrete data that would allow one to say categorically it’s going to require seven days or 14 days or three days. It’s simply too variable. I am unable to support the conclusion that there would be a 45-to-90 day period,” he said. 

Well, what, if any, conclusion can a forensic entomologist draw from the presence of cheese skippers? Tripplett asked. 

“Other than to say that the cheese skipper would not be among the first insects to arrive, I can’t produce any entomological conclusions that I would find useful from the cheese skipper in this case,” Hall concluded. 

On cross-examination, Prosecutor Selvaggio addressed Hall’s rejection of the serial wave theory of insect propagation. 

“Isn’t it true that within the last four years … you and Dr. Haskell authored a chapter entitled “On the Body: Insects’ Life, Stage, Presence and their Post-Mortem Artifacts” and in it you indicate that two main approaches exist? One is the analysis of the pattern of corpse colonization by successive waves of arthropods?” 

“That’s correct,” Hall said. 

“So when Dr. Haskell is looking at this, this wave of colonization from black blow fly to cheese skippers to black soldier fly, he’s not doing anything that your own literature, that you and he co-authored, promotes?” 

“I think you mischaracterize my response,” Hall countered. “I said in this particular case, I couldn’t find any compelling evidence to be able to apply it that specifically.”Selvaggio next got Hall to agree that because secondary screwworms are restricted by cold temperatures, the fact that Ohio had a cool spring and cool early summer in 1997 might have delayed the species’ entry into the area. 

Tripplett, during his redirect examination, posed a series of questions to his witness that he hoped the jury would remember during deliberation. He wanted to establish that despite the scientific nomenclature, the PhDs and the expert qualifications, there was still a bit of guesswork involved in using bugs to predict the time of death. 

“Although you’ve been involved for some time in what we’ve been referring to as forensic entomology, would you, Dr. Hall, acknowledge that forensic entomological evidence will have its limits in certain cases?” Triplett said. 

“Yes,” Hall said. 

“And would you therefore conclude that there are some limits in this case?” 

“Yes, I do,” Hall said. 

“And is it your conclusion that Dr. Haskell has stretched beyond those limits?” 

Hall replied, “Let me phrase it this way. From my analysis of this, I don’t see how a forensic entomologist could be as precise as is reflected in Dr. Haskell’s report.” 

The Body Farmer

On a three-acre patch of land outside Knoxville, Tennessee, where the University of Tennessee used to burn its trash, lies the Department of Anthropology’s Research Facility. From looking at the high chain-link fence surrounding the site, one wouldn’t think much of the operation, but there is no other research station quite like it anywhere in the United States. At the U-T Anthropology Research Facility, some of the most advanced forensic experimentation is being conducted, 24-hours a day, seven days a week. The knowledge gleaned from the facility over the past 25 years has advanced the science of forensic anthropology and provided scientists and law enforcement with more knowledge about the fate of post-mortem remains than the previous 200 years.Better known as “The Body Farm,” the Anthropology Research Facility is the creation of Dr. William Bass, the nation’s foremost forensic anthropologist. Bass, who has consulted on literally hundreds of criminal investigations, created the facility to “systematically study human bodies by the dozens,” he wrote in his book about the Body Farm, Death’s Acre. 

Back in 1980, Bass, then the head of the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Department, managed to convince the university that such research was not gruesome or disrespectful, but was essential to advance the science of anthropology. It was Bass’s goal to create a place “where nature would be allowed to take its course with mortal flesh, under a variety of experimental conditions … We would pick up where Sung T’zu had left off seven centuries before.” 

Over time, the Body Farm and Dr. Bass earned a reputation for excellence in post-mortem research. So, it wasn’t unusual for Kevin Neal’s lead defense counsel, Greg Meyers, to summon Dr. Bass – normally a witness for the prosecution – to the Neal trial as part of his effort to cast doubt on the State’s case that India and Cody had been killed on July 9. 

An expert in decomposition, Dr. Bass testified shortly after Dr. Robert Hall, providing the jurors and courtroom observers with an opportunity to see two of forensic science’s greatest pioneers in action on the same day. It was Meyers’s hope that Bass would be able to convince the jury that the state of the children’s remains was inconsistent with the state’s theory of the case.Defense attorney Diane Menashe questioned Dr. Bass. After laying the groundwork that allowed Bass to qualify as an expert witness in both anthropology and human decomposition, she questioned him about the time line of human decomposition. What was the quickest he’d ever encountered for going from “How I am today?” to a skeleton? she asked. 

“I’ve seen the number at 14 to 21 days,” he replied. 

Next, she addressed another point raised by Dr. Lehman, the coroner. How long does it take for the fatty acids in a putrefying body to kill the vegetation where the body lays? Menashe asked. Five to seven days, Bass responded. 

“By seven days, it’s very prominent,” he added. “By five, you can see it if you know what you’re looking for. By 10 days to two weeks, it’s very obvious.” 

She then turned to the consumption patterns of the blow fly maggots, questioning why the skulls of the children would be skeletonized, the torsos essentially hollowed out with some mummified skin and liver tissue remaining, and the legs apparently untouched by bugs. 

“How long would it take, based on your expertise, to get a skull to be that bleached, or essentially that bare?” she wondered. 

“Two to three weeks,” Bass replied. “Certainly by two weeks the skull will be off, and it’s lying in the sun and it will bleach.” 

‘The Liver Bothers Me’What did the presence of maggots in the liver tissue tell him? Menashe asked. 

“The presence of liver would tell me that those bodies hadn’t been there very long – very long meaning three weeks to a month,” he said. 

Finally, Menashe led Bass in a discussion of the stench of decomposing bodies. The defense was hoping to prove to the jury that the stench that farmer Andy Stickley smelled could not come from a pair of bodies that had been dead and decomposing for nearly two months. 

Bass recounted how one of the earliest experiments at the Body Farm was designed to answer how a human corpse could lay in a vacant lot a stone’s throw from several houses for four years and not be detected. The results of the experiment showed that the average human cannot smell decaying flesh beyond a distance of 30 yards. Furthermore, the stench varies over time, beginning to be detectable after four days, peaking in intensity after three weeks and finally dropping off totally as the remains begin to mummify. 

After two months, “you have to walk up and get awful close to it,” he added. “You’d have to stick your nose down close to it.” 

At the conclusion of her direct examination, Menashe asked Bass if he had an opinion about how long the children had been in Nettle Creek Cemetery. His answer was direct and blunt. 

“If there was liver tissue that was taken out of the body, I don’t think those bodies could have been there longer than three weeks to a month,” he responded. 

On cross-examination, Selvaggio was forced to get Bass to acknowledge several cases where his estimates of post-mortem interval turned out to be incorrect, including the “Colonel Shy case,” where the decedent had been dead more than 110 years, when Bass estimated the PMI of one year. Despite the glaring error of the Colonel Shy PMI, Bass recounts the story of that case and the reasons for the error in his book. In fact, Shy, a Confederate colonel, had been embalmed and buried in an airtight cast iron coffin in civilian clothing. When he was disinterred, his skin was still intact. 

“That’s one of the reasons I started the Body Farm,” Bass told Selvaggio. 

Most importantly, after questioning by Selvaggio, Bass admitted that if the tissue containing the maggots was not liver, he would be forced to revise his PMI for India and Cody. But Bass pointed out that the coroner’s report indicated a “tissue mass” infested with maggots was taken from India, while Cody’s autopsy reported “one container of maggot-infested liver.” 

“The liver bothers me,” Bass countered. “It really does.” 

The Jury Decides

For the first time over the course of the nearly month-long trial of her husband for killing two of her children, Sue Neal was in the courtroom to hear the jury’s verdict. 

Following closing arguments and lengthy instructions from Judge Roger B. Wilson, the jury deliberated for six hours over two days before announcing to the court that it had reached a unanimous decision. If the jury found Neal guilty of aggravated murder with the death penalty specifications – in this case, that he was guilty of the purposeful killing of two or more people – the court would then move to the penalty phase of the trial where the jurors would be deciding between life and death for Kevin Neal. 

Wilson admonished everyone in the courtroom to keep their emotions in check as the verdicts were read. 

“If there is reason to express emotion, it takes place outside the courtroom,” he said. “Everyone is required to observe that rule of procedure, difficult as it may be.” 

Then Wilson read the verdict forms. On the two counts of aggravated murder, the jury convicted Kevin Neal and found that the state proved the death penalty specs beyond a reasonable doubt. Neal was also convicted of gross abuse of the children’s corpses and guilty of tampering with evidence. Earlier, at the conclusion of the state’s case, Wilson had tossed the kidnapping charges from the indictment for lack of evidence, so those charges were not considered by the jury. 

Neal maintained his innocence as he was led from the courtroom. “I did not do this,” he said. “My conscience is clear.” 

Three days later, the same group gathered for the penalty phase of the trial – in effect, a mini-trial to determine if the aggravating factors of Kevin Neal’s crimes outweighed the mitigating factors, both sides would be allowed to call witnesses to help make their case. 

The only sworn witnesses in this phase were a pair of corrections officers who testified that Kevin Neal was a model prisoner while under their direction. 

Kevin Neal took the stand to give an unsworn statement, which meant that he could not be questioned by either the defense or the prosecution. As expected, he stood by his claim of innocence. 

“The whole ten months I sat here, and I stood my ground and said I did not do this,” he said. “Now, you people have found me guilty of it. And I still say I did not do this. I did not kill my kids. 

“All I can do is tell you people the same thing I’ve told them. I didn’t do this, and I’m standing my ground. How it’s gotten to this point, I don’t understand.” 

After Neal’s statement, the jury retired again to consider his fate. This time they took just one day – five hours – to reject the death penalty and to decide that Kevin Neal should spend the rest of his life behind bars. 

“It’s not fair!” Sue Neal shouted as the decision was announced. “All he’s going to get is (expletive) life!” She started toward the defense table. “I hate you!” 

Just like they had to do three years earlier outside a farmhouse in rural Champaign County, sheriff’s deputies had to restrain Sue Neal to keep her from attacking her husband. Across the courtroom, unnoticed amid the commotion, in the corner of a window that overlooked the carefully manicured courthouse lawn, a solitary fly buzzed futilely against the glass, driven by instinct to seek the Kentucky bluegrass on the other side where, most assuredly, there would be a place for her eggs.

When Morons Kill

Jean Gianini, prison mugsht

Just for fun, think of a definition of the word “charity.” You will understand later.
Ignorance of the law is no defense to a criminal accusation — knowing the rules that govern us is the duty of each person in a civilized society. Because our justice system is based on the premise that we are aware of what we are doing when we do it, a lack of understanding of the law does not excuse illegal behavior. For most defendants who find themselves in the dock this is not an issue; they knew what they were doing was wrong, they just hoped they would get away with it.
Ignorance of the law takes on a new meaning when we examine how intelligence affects a defendant’s ability to know right from wrong. The criminal justice system has never really figured out how to deal with criminals who lack the brainpower to know they were breaking the law and modern juries show little tolerance for any mental issues, whether insanity or developmental disability, as a defense. It was not until 1989 that the U.S. Supreme Court reluctantly agreed with a majority of states with capital punishment that executing intellectually disabled criminals was a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Many states have eliminated diminished capacity defenses that hinge on the defendant’s mental acuity.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a rural jury in upstate New York was presented with this conundrum when it had to determine whether 16-year-old Jean Gianini was responsible for what appeared to be a cold-blooded, calculated murder of his former schoolteacher, or if his level of intellectual disability prevented him from knowing the nature and quality of his act. His case marked the first time that scientific tests and testimony were used in court to show a defendant was not smart enough to know the wrongfulness of his action.
“The verdict of not guilty on the ground of criminal imbecility,” said one expert, “recognizes that weakness of mind, as an excuse for crime, is of the same importance as disease of mind; puts feeble-mindedness in the same category with insanity, and requires that it like insanity be considered in all discussions of responsibility.”
But many people at the time thought Gianini got away with murder and were outraged at the verdict. To most the slaying appeared to be a premeditated killing with clear steps taken to further the crime and avoid capture. But with a chain of circumstantial evidence that included more than one weak link, each time the prosecutor presented his theory of why Gianini did x or said y, the defense had an answer based on scientific study of imbecility.
The defense’s alternative theory of the crime convinced the jury, which acquitted Gianini of first-degree murder. Rather than to the electric chair, Gianini was sent to a state hospital for the criminally insane where he remained the rest of his life.

The Crime and Confession

The facts surrounding Lida Beecher’s murder were never contested by the defense.
Early on March 28, 1914, a Herkimer County farmer was making his rounds delivering milk. About a mile from the village of Poland, he saw signs of a violent struggle in the snow and slush. A trail of blood and footprints led from the road. Following the tracks he found a body, which proved to be that of Lida Beecher, one of the schoolteachers in the village of Poland. Her killer made a half-hearted attempt to hide her body behind a hedgerow several yards from where the killing occurred. Her umbrella and hat were found at the site of the initial assault.
Lida BeecherSuspicion quickly centered on Gianini, who was known to harbor ill will toward the victim.
Numerous witnesses saw Gianini and Lida together the night previous and watched the two of them walk out of town toward Gianini’s house. Others saw Gianini with the wrench used in the killing, and more than one reported how he talked of killing Lida for revenge.
A chronic truant who was disruptive in class when he was there, Gianini had been expelled from school and court-ordered to attend a regimented boarding school run by Catholic priests, and he incorrectly blamed Lida for his expulsion. He had been pestering her for weeks to meet with his father in hopes that she would allow Gianini to return to the local school — a wish she had no power to grant.
Based on this evidence, police went to arrest Gianini, only to learn that he had run away that morning. He was found 4 miles away and willingly returned to Poland and the police station even though he knew he was a suspect in a murder.
When he was being brought back to Poland by a friend of his father, the man said, “You have got something beside skipping out now staring you in the face.”
Gianini replied, “They can’t give me but ten years.” The witnesses to his interrogation testified that when Gianini was told that “he had murder staring him in the face,” he expressed no fear and appeared not to care at all.
Gianini was taken to the Poland police station where testimony at his trial revealed that the youth was strip-searched so authorities could check for bloodstains on his clothing or wounds that might have come from a death struggle. There were none, but Gianini’s coat was missing a button identical to one found near the crime scene.
Immediately upon undressing, Gianini offered a spontaneous confession of the crime, admitting quite proudly and with no trace of regret or remorse that he was Lida Beecher’s killer.
He was arrested on the spot and a few months later, Gianini’s first-degree murder trial began in Herkimer County.

Idiots, Imbeciles and Morons

A brief lesson in early developmental psychology is necessary before we dive deeper into this case.
In the late 19th Century a pair of French psychologists created a reasonably reliable way of measuring a person’s comparative intelligence or “mental age.” Still taken by thousands of American students in various forms today (the most common being the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale), the Binet-Simon Test of Intelligence was used to identify the “feeble-minded” who were, in the words of psychologist Henry Herbert Goddard, “the person who shows in every movement and action, if not in his very face, that he is ‘lacking,’ is ‘not all there,’ is ‘not quite right,’ or whatever may be the expression that we apply to those unfortunate ones, of whom there are, sad to say, always one or more in every community.”
The terms “idiot,” “imbecile” and “moron” had scientific distinctions at the time. An idiot was a person whose mental age was 3 or under. An imbecile was a person whose mental age was pegged between 3 and 12 years, while a moron was “a high-grade imbecile capable of earning a living under favorable circumstances, but is incapable from mental defect, existing from birth or from an early age, (a) of competing on equal terms with his normal fellows, or (b) of managing himself or his affairs with ordinary prudence.” Anyone whose mental age was above 13 by the time they reached that chronological age was considered normal.
The words have changed over the decades, but the definition of what was called imbecility, feeble-mindedness, retardation and most recently developmental disability, put forward by the British Commission on the Feeble-Minded, quoted above, is in general consistent with the American Psychiatric Association definition of Intellectual Development Disorder published in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders vol. 5, which defines IDD as a condition “with onset during the developmental period that includes both intellectual and adaptive functioning deficits in conceptual, social, and practical domains.”
Very simply, the Binet-Simon test measured the subject’s mental acuity against the performance of what an average child of that age is able to accomplish. Binet and Simon conducted interviews with hundreds of French schoolchildren, which they used to set the scale. The children were asked questions that did not have right or wrong answers, but would have more in-depth responses correlated to age.
Dr. Henry GoddardFor example, the children were asked to define “charity.” Beginning at around 10 years old, the subjects could offer a cogent response. Binet and Simon found that younger children would respond with something like “Charity is giving,” while by far most 12-year-olds not only said charity was “giving,” but also included the concept of giving to the less fortunate.
“The point is not always that this answer (‘charity is giving’) is or is not technically correct, but that it is not the kind of answer which a child of the specified age (16) should give,” Goddard testified at Gianini’s trial. “Therefore, it indicates that he is not of that age, but below it.”
Goddard was a respected alienist, or psychologist, and head of the New Jersey Institute for the Feeble-Minded. He was also a proponent of the now-discarded theory of eugenics and argued strongly for sterilizing the developmentally disabled which he believed would eventually eliminate imbecility. He also said on the stand that Gianini’s predilection for masturbation was evidence of mental defect because it demonstrates “cowardice” and is not something “well-endowed young men” do. As a result of these ignorant views based on Victorian values rather than science, in counterpoint to his efforts to help imbeciles receive justice, Goddard leaves a mixed legacy.

The Prosecution’s Case

As is typical of trials involving affirmative defenses — where the defendant admits the act but attempts to show there were mitigating factors that render the act non-criminal — the prosecution’s presentation of the facts of the murder went quickly. Establishing motive, means and opportunity took just a few witnesses and the state’s case was presented in two days. The only reason it took that long was the number of witnesses put forward by the State to bolster its case which prompted frequent objections by the defense.
The only version of the murder we have is Gianini’s confession, which he gave freely and spontaneously after his arrest:

I went to school to Lida Beecher and had trouble with her and wanted to get revenge. I met her above the hotel and walked up the street with her up beyond the stone quarry; she had been a-coming to see my folks about school and was a-coming up to see them last night and I told her they lived up the hill, and when we got up there on the left side of the road, I hit her with a monkey wrench that I got out of my father’s barn. I had the wrench in my pocket when I went up.
After I had hit her about three times with the wrench, I hit her with a knife several times, to be sure to finish her, and then I took her over in the lot; I dragged her by the foot; and then I went home and got there about 7:30.
The knife I stabbed her with was one that belonged to my father and I took it home and put it in the pantry drawer.
I left the wrench somewhere near where I hit her. When I hit her first, she did not scream but moaned.
She said she thought it was quite a ways and she did not see any house.
I was not afraid when I got home; I was just as happy as I ever was and didn’t think anything about it as I thought I had revenge.

Gianini was referring to the ruse he employed to lure her to the murder site. He told her his father was building a new house further away from the town in an isolated area. When she began to suspect something was wrong and refused to go on, Gianini pulled out the wrench and hit her. Gianini stabbed Lida more than “several” times. The coroner counted 24 stab wounds to her chest and throat. There was no evidence of sexual assault.
The state argued that Gianini’s motive can be inferred from a look at his school history. More than a year before the murder, Gianini had been promoted — at the age of 14 or 15 — from the 5th to 6th grade, where Lida was the teacher. He became disruptive in class and was eventually expelled. Although she had little to do with that decision and letters written by Lida demonstrated that she was working to place him in a boarding school that could help him learn a trade, Gianini blamed her for the expulsion. His hatred of Lida can easily be understood, writes Goddard in an article on the case:
“The boy did not get along nearly so well after the change and he dropped back in his studies. His teacher was obliged to report him a number of times to the principal, who twice whipped him with a piece of rubber hose,” he wrote. “Failing to make his studies under the new standard, he was made to occupy a special seat apart from the other pupils, at the instance, if not the actual order, of Miss Beecher.”
Gianini’s “special seat” was next to her desk facing the wall.
At one time Gianini said he would shoot Lida if he had a pistol, one witness testified, while four others offered examples of more general threats to Lida by Gianini.
Two days prior to the crime, Gianini was heard speaking harshly to Lida. After she told him she did not know when she would be talking to his father about returning to school, Gianini shouted, “Aw, I don’t believe you intend to come at all, you will wait until summer time, and go home and then it will be too late.”
The strongest part of the state’s case was demonstrating Gianini had opportunity to commit the crime, which it also used to show he was planning it in advance.
Witnesses established that Jean confronted Lida three consecutive nights demanding that she speak to his father at that moment. Twice she refused, but the third time she agreed. Whether or not she had planned to make the visit that fateful night or was a reluctant participant was not established at trial.
Several Poland residents saw Gianini with the large, rusty monkey wrench in the days before the crime and the night he committed it. When asked why he was carrying the unwieldy tool, Gianini said, “I have use for it.”
The pair was seen walking in the direction of Jean’s farmhouse around 7:15 p.m. on the night in question, and Jean was not seen again for about 30 minutes when he returned home without showing any indication of having just murdered a woman.
He ran an errand for his father and then, as he frequently did, slipped out in the middle of the night to jump a freight train. When he discovered that the train had already gone, he returned home and went to bed. The prosecution posited that this was an attempt to flee.
Early on the morning after the murder, Gianini headed to the nearby farm where he was employed, as if nothing had happened. When the farmer went looking for his employee around 9 a.m., Gianini could not be found. His father, who had the Juvenile Court declare his son delinquent because he was fond of hopping boxcars and leaving town, called the nearby station where Gianini usually caught the train, where the boy was found and returned to Poland.
Beyond those facts, the only indication of what occurred during the crime came from the defendant’s statements to police, on the witness stand, and to the psychiatrists who examined him. The admissions of having committed the act are all consistent, which is normal when a suspect is telling the truth.

The Defense Case

As Gianini had already confessed to the crime and admitted as much in court, and because his defense was imbecility, the entirety of the testimony in his favor came from witnesses to his bizarre and age-inappropriate behavior and experts in feeble-mindedness. The facts presented are bleak.
Jean Gianini was born in December 1897, the third of three children to Charles and Sara McVey Gianini. Jean’s older sister was, at least at the time of his trial, “normal.” His older brother, Charles, had been profoundly developmentally disabled — an idiot, according to Goddard:

Charles lived to be but seven years of age and during his lifetime did not learn to speak, but merely made guttural sounds; he did not walk, but moved about when seated on the floor, pushing himself sidewise, and finally shortly before his death tottered about. His death occurred when he was about seven years old. He ate gluttonously and his death was due to asphyxiation, choking due to taking in trachea foreign matter while vomiting contents of an overloaded stomach.

Genetics plays a significant role in determining whether a child is born with an intellectual disability, and mental issues ran rampant through the Gianini and McVey families.
Less than a year into her marriage, 20-year-old Sara began to lose her grip on sanity, trial testimony showed. The symptoms manifested themselves during her pregnancy with Charles, according to Goddard.

Before her first child was born she broke down mentally and was probably never ‘right’ after that time. “Prior to her marriage she was bright, vivacious, stylish, and accomplished in music. Shortly after her marriage she began to become untidy in her appearance, morose, depressed, and indifferent to her child, took no care of him, and said that while she wanted to die, she was going to live forever. She also said she thought that her face was black and that she was a negress, that she would not go into the street because she was black.

Mrs. Gianini began to self-medicate using alcohol and became a “dipsomaniac” or alcoholic.
“She became addicted to the use of liquor, first lager beer and subsequently whisky and brandy. She made pledges, administered by priests, only to be broken,” Goddard wrote.
Gianini had little contact with his mother in his first year, which one’s gut instinct tells is rarely a good thing. Mrs. Gianini died in June 1899 in the St. Anne’s Retreat Sanitarium. The causes of death are listed as “meningitis, alcoholic heart failure.”
Whatever other impairments he may have had, Gianini was very likely a victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome based on his mother’s alcoholic drinking during her pregnancy. He was malnourished and weighed about five pounds. Gianini was placed with a foster family where he lived until he was 6; whether this was a private arrangement or a state act is unknown.
He did not speak until he was 5 years old, one of the defense experts testified, but “made sounds which resembled yells.” The doctor also said Gianini was late to learn to walk.
For the first few years of school, Gianini progressed like his peers, but was held back several times in fifth grade. To Goddard this indicates that Gianini had reached his ultimate intellectual age.

In the last days of his school life Jean dropped, to a very marked degree, in his standing in his studies. This falling off in Jean’s ability was attributed to his teacher. As a matter of fact, the falling off was due to the fact that Jean had reached his limit in the fifth grade. He attained to that height because of a good memory, which is characteristic of many imbeciles and is in no way indicative of normal intelligence. It is also very common for children of this type to get through the fifth grade and fail in the sixth. They have mentality enough to carry them to that point, but not farther.

The defense experts presented a compelling case of a 16-year-old youth with the mental acuity of a 10- or 11-year-old. Other testimony indicated that his relationship with his father was contentious, he held a deep hatred of his stepmother, and was the butt of jokes. One time, his father testified, Gianini took a model train set and tried to build tracks from kindling wood.
“He couldn’t make it work, of course, and we all laughed at him,” Charles Gianini testified. He said he considered his son’s attempts “irrational.”
“And yet you laughed at him and thought his actions were amusing?” the prosecutor asked, to which the witness had no reply.
The crux of the defense’s case, however, was the rebuttal of the State’s allegations. When confronted with an almost purely circumstantial case, the defense strategy is to raise reasonable doubt by proposing an equally plausible scenario. Gianini’s defense team confronted each link of the circumstantial chain head on.
There was no premeditation and to assume so was to misunderstand what caused Gianini’s behavior, its experts argued.
“The result can be accounted for in another way. Jean being an imbecile, it is entirely possible that he had no premeditation of murder at all,” Goddard testified. “On the contrary, it is possible that as he walked up the hill with Lida Beecher he had no more thought of killing her than of committing suicide. Indeed, it is much more plausible from all we know of imbeciles, and of boys of his physical development, that there was an entirely different purpose. That purpose was probably sexual.”
Goddard recounted episodes where Gianini’s behavior toward girls was more like that of a boy at the onset of puberty, than those of a 16-year-old. Rather than behave toward the opposite sex maturely (albeit awkwardly), Gianini would tease the girls and generally make himself a nuisance. Goddard blamed the inequality of Gianini’s physical and mental ages for his inability to communicate on a mature level with women.
When he was 14, Gianini was found in the woods undressing two young girls. When confronted, he said they were going to play “Indians, and Indians are naked.” Goddard used this as more proof of Gianini’s imbecility.

That is to say, such acts are, by the uninitiated, not considered sex acts at all… Dismissing the possibility that his explanation was invented to conceal a definitely conscious sexual impulse, let us admit that he gave his real reason for the act. Still it is clear to all who are familiar with sex psychology that the subconscious reason for playing Indian in that way was a sexual one.

The defense’s experts argued that Gianini was lying to investigators when he said he wanted revenge, and theorized that he lured Lida away from town for some sort of sexual encounter. His intentions rebuffed, probably quite strongly, he lost his temper and using the wrench and knife as weapons of opportunity, he murdered Lida Beecher.
They pointed out that while Gianini’s statements to investigators and examiners were generally consistent, he embellished his story with each telling, something the experts said was common among imbeciles.
Rejecting the prosecutor’s theory that moving Lida’s body proved Gianini was trying to cover up his crime, Goddard pointed out that after hiding Lida’s body behind some bushes, “he then went back into the road, making new tracks, which he made no effort to cover. Nor did he make any effort to cover the old tracks or the blood spots that were left along in the snow. Neither did he make any attempt to hide the hat nor the umbrella nor the broken comb which were left in the road.”
The prosecution got Goddard to admit Gianini said he knew the difference between life and death, and the difference between taking a human life and killing an animal, the basic level of knowledge of the nature and quality of the act.
The eminent alienist responded that Gianini knew those distinctions, but not that causing death is considered wrong by society.
“Why hide the body, then?” asked the prosecutor.
His behavior showed “he knew he did something he ought not to have done, and rather not be caught at,” the doctor replied.
As for Gianini’s ability to recount a similar story every time he was asked about the murder, Goddard was nonplussed. Calling the youth “a braggart and a coward, with an excellent memory, a great reader — particularly interested in stories of excitement and crime,” Goddard pointed out that Gianini’s statements became more detailed over time, but rather than recall obscure details, Gianini embellished the murder itself.
“His confession is colored by his desire to show off and shine in the limelight,” Goddard said. “Gianini’s testimony is unreliable, because he was talking for effect. He is of the type that loves show and notoriety.”
In reality, what probably saved Gianini’s life was not that jurors considered him too dumb to be guilty of murder, but that they had been advised before deliberating that if they found Gianini not guilty by reason of imbecility, he would not walk free. Goddard made it clear in his testimony and in a subsequent article on the case that he considered Gianini too dangerous to ever be released, which helped sway the jury.
We reach this conclusion by looking at two similar cases where diagnosed morons were accused of murder and used the same defense as Gianini.
In one case from Oregon, a stalker shot the woman who had scorned his advances and explained his justification as “if I cannot have her, then I wanted to make sure no one did.” Just like in Gianini’s case, his spontaneous confession to police makes his crime look planned and well-executed. Medical experts using the Binet-Simon tests came to the conclusion that the man, Fred Tronson, “showed the the crude brutality of a somewhat lower grade defective.”
His lawyers told the jurors that one way or another Tronson would never be a free man again, and he was acquitted.
Around the same time, Roland Pennington, a diagnosed moron, stood trial in Pennsylvania for participating in the murder of the lover of a friend’s wife. The facts in his case clearly indicate he was only interested in helping his friend, who had kept after him for weeks to aid in the crime. Pennington expressed reluctance to kill, so his co-conspirator told him, “You start it, I’ll finish it.” After the actual killer promised to give him the “$1000 bill” the victim carried and explained that was a one followed by three zeroes, he agreed. When it turned out that the victim had only $14, Pennington did not complain but took $7 and a watch that he pawned for two bucks.
For his act he was convicted and executed.
After the verdict his jurors said they were loathe to convict the imbecile, but when presented with a binary choice of what they thought was liberty or death, they opted for death, not knowing that Pennington’s freedom was never a possibility.
Newspaper reports said that Pennington entered the death chamber barely able to stand, only walking with the aid of his guards and covering his eyes with his hands so he would not see the electric chair.