Video: New death penalty ruling complicates Casey Anthony case

NBC News and news services
updated 6/23/2011 9:24:47 PM ET 2011-06-24T01:24:47

The mother of a Florida woman accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter testified Thursday that she had conducted Internet searches about chloroform on a family computer, directly contradicting prosecutors' theory that it was the suspect who made the queries.

Casey Anthony's mother, Cindy, said she had run the chloroform queries while looking up information on chlorophyll, a green pigment found in plants. She believed her dogs may have been eating bamboo leaves containing chlorophyll. Cindy Anthony also said she ran searches on other chemicals, such as hydrogen peroxide, after she was informed about a hand sanitizer scare.

Casey Anthony listened to her mother's testimony without showing emotion.

The testimony was a surprise to prosecutors who contend that Casey Anthony made the searches. During cross-examination, prosecutor Linda Drane Burdick suggested that Cindy Anthony never mentioned the searches during depositions and that work records show that Cindy Anthony was at her job during the time the searches were made on the family's home computer.

Cindy Anthony responded that she could leave work when she needed to and that the work records might not have reflected her absence.

"You were aware that computer searches were an issue?" Drane Burdick said.

Drane Burdick asked Cindy Anthony whether she remembered denying that she conducted the searches during her 2009 deposition.

"I did not look up how to make chloroform. I looked up chloroform," Cindy Anthony said. "I did tell the detectives, and I did tell the state attorneys about the searches."

Cindy Anthony told Drane Burdick she did not run searches on household weapons, chloroform habit or neck-breaking, although she said she remembered a YouTube video involving a skateboarder. The skateboarder's trick was described as a "neck-breaking feat," she said.

Chloroform is a chemical compound that can be used to knock someone unconscious and also is found in human decomposition.

The body of Casey Anthony's daughter, Caylee, was found in December 2008, almost six months after she disappeared in Orlando. Prosecutors believe she suffocated her daughter in June 2008. She didn't report her missing for 31 days.

Earlier in the trial, a medical examiner testified that even a small amount of chloroform would be sufficient to cause the death of a child.

Cindy Anthony also said stains in the trunk of Casey Anthony's car were present when the family bought the car in 2000. Prosecutors contend the child's body was in the car trunk and then dumped in a wooded area near the Anthony home. Prosecutors have presented extensive evidence of human decomposition in the car trunk, including stains.

Sgt. Kevin Stenger of the Orange County Sheriff's Office also testified Thursday about deputies' investigation of the Anthony family computer. Prosecutors contend someone in the Anthony home ran searches on chloroform as many as 84 times. But defense attorney Jose Baez asked Stenger about discrepancies in the data showing how many times someone searched about chloroform.

During cross-examination, Drane-Burdick presented evidence that someone in the Anthony home conducted a search on how to make chloroform.

Casey Anthony has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and could face the death penalty if convicted of that charge.

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Death penalty doubts
On Wednesday, NBC News' justice correspondent Pete Williams reported that a new ruling that Florida's sentencing system in death penalty cases was unconstitutional could affect the Anthony case.

The judge, Jose Martinez, decided that the Florida sentencing procedure violated a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which held that a jury, not a judge, must find the factors that could increase a sentence.

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Under Florida state law, a jury recommends a sentence of either life or death, but the judge actually decides what sentence to impose. The jury is instructed to evaluate the factors of the specific crime and then make its recommendation.

Jurors evaluate aggravating factors that lean toward the death penalty, such as the nature of the violence involved of the crime, and mitigating factors that lean against it, such as a defendant's background.

But the jury need not be unanimous about which factors apply, nor does its verdict in the sentencing phase specify which factors were the deciding ones. It simply makes a recommendation of life or death.

"As the Florida sentencing statute currently operates in practice," Martinez said, "the jury's recommendation is not a factual finding sufficient to satisfy the Constitution. Rather, it is simply a sentencing recommendation made without a clear factual finding. In effect, the only meaningful findings regarding aggravating factors are made by the judge."

Story: Florida death penalty ruling could affect Casey Anthony case

The ruling would likely be cited in every capital case pending in the state, defense lawyers and legal experts predicted, though Florida's attorney general said it would have no immediate statewide effect.

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