BILLINGS - Using a sophisticated scientific method he helped create, a forensic entomologist told a District Court jury Friday that the insect activity on Gerald Morris' body indicates that he died sometime between Sept. 18 and Sept. 21, 2006.
Dr. Neal Haskell testified during the 15th day of Richard Covington's triple-murder trial, capping two days of mostly scientific evidence from prosecutors who allege the 47-year-old Billings man killed his three neighbors.
Haskell spent about two hours testifying Friday morning before the trial broke for the weekend. It will resume Tuesday, and prosecutors are expected to rest their case midweek. The trial before Judge G. Todd Baugh began with jury selection on Feb. 8.
Covington is charged with three counts of deliberate homicide for the deaths of Norman Leighton, 69, Patti Hubbert, 54, and Gerald Morris, 43. Covington and the victims lived in the same small cluster of apartments on South 28th Street. Covington is also charged with a dozen other felony offenses related to the murders.
Firefighters discovered the bodies of Leighton and Hubbert inside their smoldering apartment on Sept. 22, 2006. Morris' body was found about two weeks later, on Oct. 4, off of Blue Creek Road about seven miles south of Billings.
Determining for the jury when Morris was killed has been a major task for prosecutors. A forensic pathologist testified earlier that he estimated the death based on the level of decomposition sometime between Sept. 7 and Sept. 22.
Another witness previously told jurors that he let Covington borrow his truck on Sept. 19, the day prosecutors allege Covington drove Morris to the remote area and shot him in the back with a .44-caliber magnum revolver taken from Leighton and Hubbert's apartment.
Haskell's testimony narrowed the day of Morris' death down even more.
As a leading scientist in the field of forensic entomology, Haskell told jurors that he and colleagues in his field have developed a way to estimate when a death occurred by the studying the amount of insect activity and growth on a body. In this case, fly maggots found in and around Morris' body were collected by investigators and sent to Haskell for analysis.
Haskell explained in detail for the jury how he uses the growth stages of maggots and other factors, such as weather, temperature and other environmental factors, to estimate how long a person has been dead. Much of the data used in the analysis was developed and refined at what Haskell described as a "body farm," where he and other scientists use dead pigs to study the infestation and growth rates of different insect species.
Two common fly species from the Rocky Mountain region were discovered on Morris' body, Haskell said. The female fly of both species will deposit hundreds of eggs at a time on a body as a food source for the young insects.
Haskell then described how he uses the stages of maggot growth found on a body combined with a mathematical formula that measures energy from weather and other data to come to an estimate of when death occurred. His measurements in this case placed Morris' death sometime between Sept. 18 and 21, he said.
Other scientists who testified this past week included the supervisor of the Montana State Crime Lab DNA section, a serologist from the state crime lab, and a DNA analyst from a private lab in North Carolina that was hired to conduct tests on evidence collected from the triple-murder crime scenes.
Of the numerous items taken from Leighton and Hubbert's apartment and sent to the labs, the scientists said they found Covington's DNA on one item, a stained pillow that was located near Leighton's body.
An animal DNA expert from California is among the witnesses yet to be called. In court records, prosecutes say that a dog hair found on a towel used to suffocate Hubbert was matched to a dog owned by Covington.