Sunday, November 15, 2009

Botany and Homicide, a presentation by Jane Bock

This past Thursday evening, I went to the meeting of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America to listen to a very interesting presentation by Jane Bock, Professor emerita at the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She talked about her work in forensic botany, helping homicide investigators with her expertise in botany and testifying at murder trials.

In one example case, Jane examined slides of a victim's stomach contents and identified kidney beans and cabbage, not the fare she would have eaten at McDonald's, her last known meal. The investigators used this knowledge to discover that she had eaten a meal with her killer before she was murdered. An interesting fact Jane passed on to us is that the pyloric sphinctor at the base of the stomach closes at death, sealing in the contents, and plant cells inside can be used to determine time of death as well as the contents of the last meal.

In a "Black Widow" case in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Jane determined that potatoes and onions were in the victim's stomach, an indicator of the hash he ate for breakfast, versus the dinner that the widow stated she fed him before he died. This discrepancy was enough evidence for the police to obtain a search warrant for the home and find the shovel that was used to hit the victim on the head and the stun gun that was used to stun him before he was shot. The widow had been married 11 times to 9 wealthy men, some of whom died, and two of whom were "slow learners". :-)

Jane has also examined botanical evidence from the cars and clothing of suspects to identify the species. In a case in Longmont, Colorado, she identified bits of plants from a man's car that only grow at the high elevation where his wife's body was found, and not at their home. Jane said plant evidence can be found in windshield wiper wells, the front of the radiator, the undercarriage, the grooves of the pedals, and on the floor mats, so a crook needs keep his car awfully clean! In a Colorado Springs case, leaves and grasses from the burial site of a victim (that did not grow in the suspect's yard) were found in a washing machine after he called his ex-wife from jail (where inmate calls are monitored) and asked her to wash his clothes.

Jane is often asked to determine the makeup of suspicious powders and fluids in envelopes confiscated by the Post Office, assists in finding victim graves with Necrosearch International using her botanical expertise, and has offered her botanical expertise to crime investigators in many other ways. Her talk was absolutely fascinating, and if you ever get the chance to hear her speak, I highly recommend you go!

One interesting tidbit is that Jane is an avid reader and collector of Nero Wolfe mystery novels, but she said the author, Rex Stout, constantly messes up the Latin names of the orchids that Nero Wolfe collects and shows. Jane is working on a mystery manuscript of her own, and I can't wait to read it once it's published!


Sheila Deeth said...

Sounds like it will have some truly fascinating insights.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Besides all her botanical expertise, Jane is a wonderful and fascinating lady with a delightful sense of humor. I'm sorry I missed this program.