How microscopic evidence from plants can help investigators solve rapes, murders

Forensic botany is always fair, ethical and impartial

The first time most Floridians heard about forensic botany was during the Casey Anthony murder trial in 2011.

ORLANDO, Fla. – The first time most Floridians heard about forensic botany was during the Casey Anthony murder trial in 2011.

Anthony’s attorneys called expert witnesses to testify in an effort to defend her.

One witness was a forensic botanist.

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The botanist testified that the body of Anthony’s daughter, Caylee, could have been in the woods for less than two weeks, not months like the prosecution argued.

The forensic botanist said she based her conclusion on the plant life growing on, around and through the 2-year-old’s remains.

Anthony was eventually found not guilty of murdering Caylee.

The use of botany, the scientific study of plants, is used to solve crime across the country.

Last year, leading forensic botanist Dr. Christopher Hardy, who holds a doctorate in botany and is a professor at Millersburg University in Pennsylvania, concluded a suspected attempted rapist was in the same body of water as the woman he’s accused of attacking.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Office sent Hardy samples from the pond in which the woman was dragged and clothing from both the suspect and victim, Hardy concluded the samples were a statistical match.

“I was given samples of the victim’s clothing, the suspect’s clothing - pants and shoes from the suspect - and I was also given samples of the pond water where all of this took place,” Hardy said. “There is no doubt this was the same species on all of these pieces of evidence as it is in the pond of water, the victim’s shirt, the victim’s pants.”

Hardy said he was also able to conclude, based on the samples, that the suspect was in the same area of the pond as the victim.

Detectives said the suspect held the victim up against an algae-covered wall as he tried to rape her.

“So not only was I generally able to put the suspect in the pond with the victim, but I was able to match the suspect with the victim right at the same location in the same situation within that pond, statistically,” Hardy said.

Hardy’s findings led to the arrest of 30-year-old Patrick Howard, who is also suspected of a sex attack in Tennessee.

“If the suspect has a potential alibi, what is he doing with that filamentous alga in his pocket, all over his pants, in his shoes?” Hardy said. “Why is the suspect’s clothing covered with filamentous algae? It’s not just on the shoes, which would suggest the person could have been waiting in a body of water, but it’s on the knees and the groin area, it’s in the pocket.”

Howard is scheduled to go to trial in Orange County next month for kidnapping and attempted rape.

Hardy said he knows of at least 60 cases where forensic botany has been applied.

“Forensic botany is the application of plant evidence to legal matters,” Hardy said. “You know in Florida that once you’re off the beaten path of a road, plants are everywhere. And oftentimes that evidence is microscopic.”

The science has been applied to law enforcement cases to determine how long a body has been decomposing or if the person was poisoned.

And researchers are investigating if forensic botany can help locate a body in the woods faster by looking for differentiation in treetops. The researchers suggest nutrients seeping into the soil from a decomposing body would be apparent in the growth of the surrounding vegetation.

Hardy said forensic botany is an ideal investigative tool because it’s always unbiased.

“All I’m interested in is looking at the evidence that they give to me,” Hardy said. “If it’s inconclusive then that’s my report. If it exonerates a potential suspect and that’s in my report.”

Hardy said any scientist acting as an expert witness - for the prosecution or defense - would have to arrive at the same conclusion upon examining the same evidence.

“When I am able to make any conclusive inference about the evidence it’s usually pretty strong,” Hardy said. “Not many people can lie about plant evidence.”

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for News 6 and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting.