News and Events[printer friendly version]
posted on 11/1/02
SJC Professor Talks About Involvement as Expert Witness In van Dam Case
Now that over a month has passed since David Westerfield was convicted and sentenced with the abduction, sexual assault, and murder of seven-year-old Danielle van Dam of Sabre Springs, Calif., Neal Haskell, forensic entomologist and assistant professor of biology at Saint Joseph's College, feels comfortable talking about his experience as an expert witness for the defense. The van Dam case is just one of more than five hundred cases in which Haskell has assisted in.
"It was quite an experience," he said. "I'm glad I didn't have the responsibility of deciding whether or not [Westerfield] did it or not. My hat's off to the jurors."
Danielle van Dam was kidnapped from her home in Sabre Springs on February 1st; four days later, Westerfield was placed under 24-hour-a-day police surveillance until his February 22nd arrest. The young girl's body was discovered off a San Diego highway on February 27th.
The second expert witness to testify on behalf of the defense, Haskell was asked by lead defense attorney Steven Feldman in June to review the evidence utilized by Entomologist David Faulkner, which indicated the blow flies found on van Dam's body would not have been present until sometime between February 16th and 18th. This would have made it unlikely for Westerfield to be at the site at the exact time her body was left there.
Haskell wasn't surprised he was contacted by Feldman for help with the case. "There aren't many forensic entomologists out there," he commented, adding that he was one of approximately eight board-certified forensic entomologists and the only full-time forensic entomologist in the United States. He agreed to evaluate Faulkner's evidence, but on one condition: "I would call it as the evidence suggests," he said. "I said, 'If it's there, it's there. If it's not, I'm sorry.'"
As it turned out, entomological evidence was there. Based on the analysis of the temperature at the site at that time, Haskell concluded the blow flies likely entered van Dam's body between February 14th and February 21st, and couldn't have entered the body any earlier than February 12th.
"This could suggest a number of possibilities," he said. "Maybe [Westerfield's] surveillance team missed something; maybe there was an accomplice; or, maybe he didn't do it."
Haskell took the stand in July and was involved in "heated exchanges" with the lead prosecuting attorney Jeff Dusek on a number of issues, including Haskell's time frame (slightly different from Faulkner's), weather data and knowledge of the local climate. Dusek was also quick to note Haskell's findings were based on evidence collected by Faulkner and not his own examination of the body. "I knew I was going to be hit hard by the prosecution; they had to break our evidence [in order to gain a conviction]," he said. "[But] I presented my findings as honestly, accurately, and simply as possible."
He also wasn't surprised by the jury's verdict. "I was pleased with the way the jury did their job," he said. "They were very attentive throughout the trial, and it was their responsibility to consider, all, part or none of the expert testimony and evidence. Obviously, they decided that other evidence was more convincing [than the entomological evidence]."
Danielle van Dam wasn't the only kidnapped child to make headlines in the last year and a half. Five-year-old Samantha Runion of Orange County, Calif., was kidnapped and murdered in July of this year; five-year-old Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her home in Salt Lake City, Utah, the month before; on May 3, seven-year-old Alexis Patterson was kidnapped on her way to school in Milwaukee, Wis., and sisters Diamond and Tionda Bradley of Chicago, Ill., then ten and three, were last seen on July 6, 2001. Because the public has been exposed to so many missing children reports, Haskell noted that it was especially important for everyone to remain focused on the case at hand.
"It was extremely emotional for everybody," he said in regards to being involved with the case. "But as a forensic scientist, I had to put emotions aside and deal specifically with the evidence. Westerfield deserved to be represented and covered under the United States' constitution."
One of the creators of the forensic entomology field, Haskell has been a full-time faculty member at Saint Joseph's College since 1995. In addition to his teaching duties at SJC, he is also a co-designer/co-instructor for an introductory forensic science course at Purdue University in Lafayette, where he earned his master's and doctoral degrees in forensic entomology.
His name is a familiar one in both print and television media. Haskell co-authored the first book on forensic entomology for law enforcement officials and was featured in the 2001 Simon and Schuster publication Dead Reckoning. He has also appeared on The Discovery Channel's "The New Detectives: Case Studies in Forensic Science" twice, bringing the television station to Rensselaer last year to shoot footage for his second episode. Other TV appearances have been on such stations as HBO, Court TV, The Learning Channel and PBS. He will also appear in an upcoming program, "Rats, Bats, and Bugs," on The History Channel. An airdate is not available at this time.