Pieces of a tiny skeleton found in swampy woods belong to a 3-year-old who disappeared but provide few clues about what happened to her, a missing link that could make it harder for prosecutors to convince a jury her death was a homicide.
Casey Anthony, 22, has been charged with murder in the death of daughter Caylee, a case that has captivated the Orlando community where they lived.
Authorities said at a news conference Friday that DNA tests conducted on remains found by a utility worker last week less than a half-mile from where the child lived matched Caylee's genetic profile. But the only clue they give about her death is that her bones didn't suffer trauma, said Orange County medical examiner Dr. Jan Garavaglia.
"Bottom line is, folks, no child should have to go through this," said Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary.
Without a definite cause of death, a defense lawyer can suggest to a jury that labeling Caylee's death a homicide is only speculation, said A. Russell Smith, a Jacksonville attorney and immediate past president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
"Juries are particularly conscientious in homicide cases because the penalties are so severe," Smith said. "So, to the extent that there are gaps in critical evidence, it makes the prosecutor's job much more difficult."
The discovery of the child's remains came after months of searches, twists and turns in the investigation. Casey Anthony was indicted in October on first-degree murder and other charges, even though no body was found. She has insisted that she left the girl with a baby sitter in June, but she didn't report her missing until July.
A search team said they did not check the wooded area sooner because it was submerged in water from the summer's heavy rains. But the utility worker who made the tip, Roy Kronk, said he had contacted the Orange County Sheriff's office in August to report that he had seen "something suspicious, a bag, in the same area."
The sheriff's office said he first called Aug. 11 to report the bag. A deputy responded but didn't find anything and was unable to locate him. Kronk called a crime hot line the following day and the information was passed on to the sheriff's office criminal investigation division. On Aug. 13, he called the sheriff's office a third time. He met a deputy, but authorities cleared the area as a place of interest in the search a short time later.
Beary said his department was investigating its response.
"If we missed a window of opportunity, we don't know," he said. "I'm not throwing anybody under the bus because we don't know."
It took authorities several days to analyze the remains since they were found last Thursday, and some are still undergoing tests. Some of the bones were as small as pebbles and had been scattered. Excavators searching on their hands and knees had a hard time finding the fragments.
Garavaglia — the star of cable TV's "Dr G: Medical Examiner — said authorities concluded Caylee was killed through DNA tests and "circumstantial evidence." She said she was certain this was a homicide, not an accidental death, and didn't expect further testing to reveal a specific cause.
"I wouldn't have issued the report if I wasn't sure," she said.
A jail chaplain told Casey Anthony that the remains were her daughter at the Orange County jail just before the news conference began. Her attorney, Jose Baez, was with her shortly after.
"This is her private moment," Baez said. "This is her life she's trying to battle through right now."
Caylee has been a staple on national news as her grandparents pleaded for tips, promising the girl was still alive.
Volunteers and investigators mounted several search through the summer and fall, looking at wooded areas near Orlando International Airport, local parks and even the grounds where the bones were found.
Caylee's grandmother first called authorities in July to say she hadn't seen the girl, whose third birthday passed shortly after her disappearance, for a month. Her daughter's car smelled like death, she said.
Police immediately interviewed Anthony and soon said everything she told them about her daughter's whereabouts was false. The baby sitter was nonexistent and the apartment where Anthony said she had last seen Caylee had been empty for months. Anthony also lied about where she worked, they said.
Other troubling details emerged: Photos surfaced of Anthony partying after her daughter disappeared. Friends said she was a habitual liar, but also a good mother.
Last month, the Orange County State Attorney turned over almost 800 pages of documents showing someone used the Anthonys' home computer to do Internet searches for terms like "neck breaking" and "household weapons."
Brad Conway, an attorney who represents George and Cindy Anthony, Casey's parents, said they will cooperate with investigators.
"They know now their precious granddaughter is safe and can serve as a guardian angel to protect missing children and their families," Conway said.
In mid-March, someone searched Google and Wikipedia for peroxide, shovels, acetone, alcohol and chloroform. Traces of chloroform, which is used to induce unconsciousness and a component of human decomposition, were found in the trunk of Casey Anthony's car during forensic testing, the documents say.
If convicted of first-degree murder, Anthony faces an automatic life sentence as prosecutors have announced they will not seek the death penalty. Her trial is scheduled for March.