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Forensic Botany: An Underutilized Resource

By: , Posted on: February 13, 2017

Forensic studies can benefit greatly from the identification of botanical materials associated with many crimes. Unfortunately, awareness and utilization of these tools by law enforcement and forensic laboratories is limited. Generally, botanical materials are easily and inexpensively obtained, preserved, and identified. The techniques employed mostly are simple and easily explained to judges and members of juries.

The disciplines of plant anatomy, plant identification, and plant ecology are well established and have many forensic applications. Microscopic identification of food plants from plant fragments and seeds found in stomach contents, intestinal contents, or vomitus can be used to reconstruct last meals of a victim and help in the determination of time of death. Meat (beef, chicken, fish, etc.) and meat byproducts are not easy to identify because they are readily digested in the stomach and they lack rigid cell walls. Furthermore, all vertebrate muscle cells look alike microscopically. Flour and foods made from flour also cannot be identified microscopically because their cell walls were destroyed by grinding. Microscopic plant fragments in small amounts of fecal material on a suspect’s clothing can link a suspect to a victim or a crime scene. Larger plant fragments can be identified to genus or species and link a suspect’s clothing or vehicle to a particular location.

Identification of a species is important in the identification of drug-producing plants, toxic plant species, or illegally transported plants. Diatoms in stomach contents, lungs, or other tissues can be used in suspected drowning victims and may even be localized to a given body of water. They also are associated with many cleansers and polishes. Pollen has not been used as extensively in the USA as in the UK. At the same time, pollen’s invisibility provides evidence that is not noticed by criminals.

The presence of pollen in hair or clothing can indicate a person was at a particular location or that a body was moved from one locale to another. Pollen embedded in nasal bones of a skeleton can be used to identify the time of year a person died.

A severely underutilized aspect of plant science involves the identification of phytoliths, which are silica bodies associated with many, if not most, higher plants. Phytoliths have been used primarily in the identification of grass species and has been helpful is solving crimes involving game animals. They also could be used for identification of other flowering plants and the history and evolution of ecosystems, both aquatic and terrestrial.

Although most forensic laboratories cannot afford to retain full-time plant experts on their staffs, experts in all of the botanical areas are associated with most colleges and universities, government agencies such as the USDA and USGS, as well as with many conservation organizations and environmental consulting firms. NecroSearch International, a non-profit volunteer organization of scientists and law enforcement personnel based in Colorado, includes several local botanical members who utilize plant identification and ecology in the location of clandestine graves.

About the Book:

Forensic Plant Science presents chapters on plant science evidence, plant anatomy, plant taxonomic evidence, plant ecology, case studies for all of the above, as well as the educational pathways for the future of forensic plant science. The work provides techniques, collection methods, and analysis of digested plant materials and shows how to identify plants of use for crime scene and associated evidence in criminal cases.

The book’s companion website: http://booksite.elsevier.com/9780128014752 hosts a microscopic atlas of common food plants.

Visit elsevier.com and use discount code STC317 at checkout to save up to 30% on your very own copy!

Download the chapter discussing cases that use evidence from plant anatomy or access the entire book on ScienceDirect!

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About the Authors:

Jane H. Bock is a professor emerita in biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She received her bachelor’s degree from Duke University, master’s degree from Indiana University and Ph.D. (1966) from the University of California at Berkeley. All her degrees are in Botany. She taught, carried out research and published scientific work in population ecology and forensic botany at Boulder for over 30 years. Officially retired from teaching, she continues to do research as a forensic botanist and serve as an expert witness for the defense or the prosecution in homicide cases. She also lectures and continues to publish regularly. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and was a founding member of both Necrosearch Ltd and the Ecology Section of the Botanical Society of America.

Dr. David Norris has done research in environmental endocrinology and neuroendocrinology for more than 50 years. Dr. Norris is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado. He received his bachelor’s degree from Baldwin-Wallace College and his Ph.D. in 1966 from the University of Washington. Dr. Norris has worked in the area of forensic botany with Dr. Jane H. Bock, since 1982, primarily on developing the use of plant cells in the gastrointestinal tract to aid in homicide investigations. Dr. Norris and Dr. Bock have been involved in investigations in numerous states as well as throughout the State of Colorado. Dr. Norris has been certified as an expert witness in this area for the State of Colorado. With Dr. Bock, Dr. Norris also has consulted on other botanical evidence for criminal investigations. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in 2014.

Reference

Bock, J.H. and Norris, D.O. (2016).  Forensic Plant Science.  Academic Press, San Diego.

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