By Joe Beck
Sometimes it takes a botanist to catch a thief - or a murderer. Sometimes it's just a matter of barking up the right tree.
Stephen Carroll showed an audience of about 50 gathered at the Shenandoah Valley Westminster-Canterbury retirement community in Winchester On Thursday why the botanist as detective isn't as far-fetched as it might sound at first.
Carroll took the audience through a list of examples both fictional and real that demonstrate how leaves, stems, bark and pollen grains can help crack cases that haunt detectives' dreams.
Carroll, a botanist and director of public programs at the state arboretum and Blandy Experimental Farm in Boyce, cited the kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh's young son in 1935 as perhaps the most well-known case in which plant forensics contributed to an arrest and conviction.
Carroll told how the work of Arthur Koehler, an expert on wood anatomy and identification at Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisc., helped investigators track a homemade ladder used in the kidnapping to the home of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the man who was later convicted and executed for the crime.
Carroll quoted a defense lawyer who scoffed at the notion that Koehler should be allowed to testify: "There is no such animal known among men as an expert on wood."
But the judge issued a decision declaring Koehler to be an expert witness, thus opening the way for other plant experts to testify in future trials, Carroll said.
Koehler identified the wood used in making the ladder, markings left by milling equipment on the wood and analyzed the wood's structure. In doing so, he provided information that allowed authorities to track the wood's origins to lumberyards in South Carolina and the Bronx in New York City. From there, investigators were able to link the wood to a missing floorboard in Hauptmann's home just 10 blocks from the Bronx lumberyard.
Koehler testified at the trial that the missing floorboard and the ladder rail were at one time the same piece of board.
Despite the breakthrough plant forensics science made at the Lindbergh trial, Carroll said he is disappointed at how little it is used to solve crimes to this day.
He cited the example of the 2007 edition of the FBI Handbook of Forensic Science that lists only wood and cotton fibers as plant-based crime scene evidence worthy of examination.
"It is slowly becoming more acceptable, but not as readily as I would like it to be," Carroll said."
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org