Studying plant sciences can take you into some surprising career paths. Dr. Christopher Hardy, a forensic botanist and a professor in the biology department at Millersville University, has been called on in several investigations to lend his expertise. The most recent case was a murder trial that took place in August and ended with the conviction of Robert Kern Jr. for first-degree murder and attempting to conceal the crime. Hardy says that the jury deliberated just 30 minutes on the conviction.
On the morning of April 13, Kern was supposed to drive his girlfriend/fiancé’s 16-year-old daughter to school near Orlando, Florida. The girl never made it, however, and she was found dead five days later by hikers in a remote woodland nearly an hour from her home. This is where Hardy’s work began. “The first line of incriminating evidence linking Kern to the crime scene was botanical,” he shares. “The body was found hidden in a dark grove of muscadine grapevines and multiple species of live oak. I found leaves of these same species in various parts of Kern’s vehicle.”
Hardy says that certain peculiar morphologies of the leaves in Kern’s vehicle were a match for those of the plants found at the crime scene. Furthermore, says Hardy, “the largely intact nature of some of those leaves in Kern’s vehicle, which had been searched just two weeks after the crime, indicated that they had been deposited in the vehicle recently, in a window of time which included the day the crime took place,” he shares.
Working a case like this presents challenges. “Forensic evidence is often fragmentary – meaning I see bits and pieces of stems and leaves, making identification difficult. Usually, however, I have a pretty good idea of which species the fragments might be from and then, to be certain, I compare the fragments to preserved specimens of those possible species in the University herbarium.” The Millersville University herbarium, which Hardy curates, houses more than 22,000 preserved plant specimens from thousands of species from across North America. “It has served on multiple occasions as a useful reference collection in forensic cases I have worked on.”
This case, explains Hardy, demonstrates one of many practical applications of plant sciences. He teaches his students early on in their undergraduate careers that plants comprise 90% of the biomass found in nature. “When applied to a forensic investigation, this basic biological fact about the ubiquity and dominance of plants in the environment means that botanical evidence will be present more often than any other biological trace evidence,” he says. “In this particular case, Kern no doubt saw the remote woodland and its dense vegetation as an ideal place to conceal his crime yet, ironically, it was the leaves and leaf fragments from this same vegetation which he unknowingly left the scene with and which would ultimately help lead to his arrest and criminal conviction.”
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