Palm Beach Post (Florida)
November 26, 2001 Monday FINAL EDITION
SECTION: LOCAL, Pg. 1B
HEADLINE: INSECT 'WITNESSES' TO YIELD CLUES IN SLAYING
BYLINE: Kathryn Quigley, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
WEST PALM BEACH - For criminal defense attorney Robert Gershman, hiring experts to test blood, DNA or fingerprint evidence in a murder case is routine.
But hiring an expert to test blowfly larvae is something new. Especially when the insects get an all-expense-paid trip to Indiana, escorted by an employee of the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner's Office.
Gershman represents Antoine Wright, 25. Wright and his girlfriend, 18-year-old Linda Pedrosa, are charged with killing Pedrosa's mother, Isabelle, last year. They could face the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder.
Prosecutors say the pair killed 50-year-old Isabelle Pedrosa June 25, 2000, then went on a spending spree with $8,000 of Pedrosa's money. Her body was found in woods in The Acreage nine days later.
Wright's lawyer wants to know whether the larvae, which were found on Pedrosa's body, could cast doubt on Wright's involvement in the crime by challenging the prosecution theory of when Pedrosa died.
One way forensic entomologists can tell how long a body has been decomposing is to examine the gestational stage of the insects found on and around the body.
The case is quickly setting itself apart from other murders in the county and is entering the realm of science subjects covered in recent television episodes of CSI and Forensic Files.
"This case is unique - no question," Gershman said.
Gershman is using Indiana forensic entomologist Neal H. Haskell, who has testified in other murder cases about the time of death of a victim. Haskell jokingly calls himself "the maggot guy of North America" and teaches at St. Joseph's College in Indiana.
In 1996, Haskell helped crack the murder case of a 13-year-old runaway whose body was found in Easton, Pa. By studying fly larvae, or maggots, found on the teen, Haskell pinpointed the time of death, corroborating the statement given by a key witness. Two men were arrested and convicted of the crime. The case was featured on Court TV's Forensic Files.
Haskell's insect work in a 1994 Oklahoma case of a woman convicted of killing her husband was detailed on The New Detectives on the Discovery Channel. Haskell's determination of the time of death contradicted the wife's testimony about when she had last seen her husband. She changed her plea after Haskell's testimony.
Isabelle Pedrosa's disfigured and decomposing body was found by surveyors on July 4, 2000. Crime-scene investigators plucked some of the insects and preserved them in solution.
Linda Pedrosa told detectives she and her boyfriend had killed her mother nine days earlier because her mother disapproved of the relationship.
Pedrosa said Wright hit her mother on the head with a frying pan in her suburban Palm Beach Gardens home and then strangled her with an extension cord, according to court records. The two then poured muriatic acid over the body to disfigure it and try to conceal the crime. They then dumped the body in the woods.
Wright has said only that he knew what happened that day and didn't want his girlfriend to "take the fall."
A trial date has not been set. The pair could get separate juries.
Wright's jury will not hear Pedrosa's statement to police. A judge has ruled the statement cannot be used against Wright at trial because Wright wouldn't have a chance to cross-examine Pedrosa, Gershman said.
Besides a date of death, Gershman also wants to learn whether acid could have affected the growth of the larvae.
He's not the only lawyer with a bug sleuth in his corner. Prosecutor Shirley Deluna has hired Jason H. Byrd of Virginia Commonwealth University. Byrd also has been featured on a couple of detective documentaries, and he is an instructor for the FBI national academy.
In his report, Byrd determined that the blowflies laid their eggs on the body of Isabelle Pedrosa between June 26 and 27 - which jibes with the prosecution's contention that Pedrosa was killed the 25th.
"If the body were not concealed, colonization would have commenced less than 24 hours after death," Byrd wrote in his report.
Although it might be gruesome to think of bugs laying eggs on a human body, Byrd said that to a mama fly, a body is simply a warm place full of protein in which to place her offspring.
The average life span of the type of blowfly found on Pedrosa - Chrysomya rufifacies - is about 60 days, he said. In that time, a fly can lay 150 to 200 eggs every three days. The eggs hatch into maggots and develop over four to seven days before they crawl off into the soil. There, they form pupae, or cocoons, and stay there for 10 days until they hatch into flies.
Forensic entomologists determine the time of death from maturity of the larvae.
Insects can reveal other details, too. For example, if the eggs of an outdoor fly are found on a body discovered indoors, that's a clue the body was moved after death.
Byrd's lab at Virginia Commonwealth is tucked at the end of a hallway and at the end of the air-conditioning system in the building to keep the odors from spreading. Kept under lock and key are all kinds of bugs, including flies and larvae.
"I have a big room full of maggots here, awaiting their day in court," Byrd said.
Defense lawyer Gershman and prosecutor Deluna went back and forth for months over the proper way to handle, transport and test the larvae.
They were close to settling on flying the larvae from Virginia to Indiana, when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred.
Suddenly, it became much more difficult to put the package on a plane. Instead, Deluna and Gershman agreed to have William Gardner, a forensic supervisor with the county medical examiner's office, fly to Virginia to pick up the larvae from Byrd on Nov. 12.
Gardner then drove to Indiana to drop off the larvae - preserved in small vials - at Haskell's lab. Gardner will repeat the trip in reverse next month. The Palm Beach County Commission approved a $2,200 advance to pay for Gardner's plane tickets, rental car, meals and lodging. The county is legally required to pay Wright's defense costs.
In another recent development, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge John Hoy denied Pedrosa's attempt to keep her statement out of the trial.
Her lawyer, Ann Perry, argued that detectives violated Pedrosa's rights in questioning her because she was a minor and because she initially said she didn't want to say anything.
Hoy ruled that Pedrosa had sufficient maturity and intelligence to waive her constitutional rights.
"The record does not disclose coercion or illegal conduct on the part of the police," Hoy wrote in his order. "There was no improper or illegal detention of the defendant."