Plant Life: Cracking Murder Cases
In Casey Anthony’s murder trial, a forensic botanist testified to length of time that Anthony’s daughter had lain in the woods before her body was discovered. The criminal defense lawyer’s forensic botanist testified that because of the “pattern of leaf litter,” the body could have been in the woods for as little as two weeks, a much shorter period of time than the prosecution was claiming. Anthony was acquitted. Today, a criminal defense attorney has to possess more than an understanding of the law, he must have an in depth understanding of forensics.
By applying the study of plant life to criminal investigations, forensic botanists can be a vital part of a team approach to cracking a case.
Criminal Defense Lawyer Explains: Botanical Evidence
Forensic botany encompasses not just the study of plants as a whole, but reproduction, including pollen and seedlings, geographical loci, cell structure and make-up, growth, metabolism, development, root structures, diseases, chemical properties, and evolutionary interrelationships among taxonomic assemblages. Like DNA, plant cells are so individualistic that a botanist can often identify the plant from microscopic detritus, as well as its native geographic region.
Because of pollen’s abundance, microscopic size and slow rate of deterioration it can be extremely useful forensically. A medical examiner can obtain pollen samples from the nostrils or nasal cavities. However, since pollen is easily cross-contaminated, and grass pollen indistinguishable on a microscopic level, forensic conclusions drawn from pollen alone can often be challenged successfully.
By surveying plants and growing conditions at a crime scene, a botanist may be able to approximate the age of the plant life. This can prove useful for determining the length of time a skeleton has been at that location. From the plants growing within the skeletal area, particularly the roots, a forensic botanist can approximate how long the body laid there undisturbed. A botanist may be able to specify the time of death from the plants surrounding the body.
Investigating the body and its surroundings can also give the botanist clues about the death. From microscopic plant detritus, cells or pollen – not native to the location – discovered on the body of a murder victim, a forensic botanist may conclude that the victim was killed somewhere else and the body was later moved to this second crime scene. A plant species’ native loci may lead investigators to other states or even other countries.
During an autopsy, a medical examiner may analyze the victim’s digestive track seeking clues to the victim’s last meal. Using the digestive rates of plant-based foods, a medical examiner may be able to estimate the time of death or, at least, the time that passed between the consumption of the last meal and death. By narrowing down these types of details investigators can create a timeline of events, which they can use to test the reliability of information provided by witnesses or, more importantly, a suspect.
Marijuana Cultivation Cases
Both State and Federal governments punish individuals convicted of marijuana cultivation based upon the number of plants seized. For example, Federal drug laws require a judge to impose a minimum mandatory sentence of 10 years on an individual convicted of cultivating 1000 or more plants. What, however, constitutes a plant? We recently retained a botanist to challenge the D.E.A.’s inclusion of rootless clones in their “plant” count. A dedicated criminal defense lawyer must be prepared to creatively utilize forensic experts in defending his client against the government.
Contact a Massachusetts Criminal Lawyer
Kevin J. Mahoney is a Cambridge, MA Criminal Defense Attorney who, with the assistance of capable forensic experts, has salvaged otherwise doomed clients from the abyss.