SpencerDismuke

Forensic Palynology

Blog Post created by SpencerDismuke on Dec 14, 2014

What is it?

-->It is the science of using both modern and fossil palynomorphs (primarily spores and pollen) to help solve legal problems.

 


When was it first used?

-->It is not precisely known where and when it was first used, but the early 1950's is probably a good guess. The first well documented case was in Austria in 1959 involving a criminal case where a man on a journey down the Danube River casino club disappeared near Vienna. His body was never found. A suspect, with a known motive for killing him, was later arrested and charged with the man's murder. With no body or confession the case was in jeopardy of default. The only real clue seemed to be a locally uncharacteristic mud found on the defendant's shoes. Identification (by Wilhelm Klaus of the University of Vienna) of the palynomorphs within the mud consisted of the trees -- spruce, willow and alder, as well as an extinct fossil hickory pollen 20 million years old. Only one small area along the Danube Valley had soils with the precise modern pollens in association with the rocks containing the fossil pollen. When confronted with this information the defendant confessed and showed authorities precisely where he had buried the body.

 


When and Where is it used today?

-->As in the past, it is rarely used; not because the science lacks validity, but because it is not widely known or understood. Doctors Vaughn Bryant, John Jones and Dallas Mildenhall conducted surveys of major law enforcement agencies in the United States which indicated that little is known about this area of forensics (forensic palynology). Among the major countries of the world, only law enforcement agencies in New Zealand routinely collect and use forensic palynological studies in civil and criminal cases.

 


On or From What can it be used?

-->Palynomorphs can be recovered from almost any substance and any environment. Typical items from which palynomorphs are recovered for forensics research range from dirt, clothing, hair, rope, packing and baskets to even include blood from a crime scene. These "materials" can yield a possible geographic origin or can link an individual or item with the scene of a crime. Likewise, the palynomorphs found in illegal drugs, like marijuana and heroine, can link those drugs with their users or (according to Dr. Mildenhall of New Zealand) even their source area, and can show which shipments of drugs originated from the same, or from different, source areas.

-->Due to the ruggedness of the exterior of many palynomorphs (which is also the reason for their excellent fossilization) they can be recovered from baked goods, canned goods and even the stomach contents of a murdered victim. This last fact may sound gruesome, but it may aid in a victim's identification by indicating what or where that person ate their last meal. This is especially useful with partially decomposed or neo-mummfied bodies.

 


Precedent for Forensic Palynology in the U.S.?

-->Probably the most noted mention of forensic palynology in the United States occurred on a television show popular in the 1970's -- Hawaii Five-O. In that series plot a group of thieves in Hawaii were tracked to their "hideout" by examining the pollen trapped in their abandoned car's air filter. The examined pollen was deemed by the palynologist to be representative of plants found only in a particular part of the island-- the "hideout." In truth this may in fact be one application of forensic palynology.

-->The Case of the Corn Pollen-------An individual in the late 1970's in rural Illinois was kidnapped,, assaulted and killed with an ax, and his car was subsequently stolen. Later, transients were arrested for "breaking and entering" in a town close to where the car was abandoned (after it ran out of gas). Suspicious of the transients' story, but with no real clues to link them with the murder, the Illinois Bureau of Investigation turned to Forensic Palynology for possible help. Pollen analysis of a transient's shirt revealed it was covered with fresh corn pollen, especially in the area of the shoulders. To the palynologist, Dr. James King, this palynological information indicated that the transients had recently walked/ran through a corn field. The only large corn field in the area was located between where the murder victims car was abandoned and the town where the transients were arrested. Yet, the transients stated that the location in question was an area they had never been close to. Subsequent to the palynology report, people living near the large cornfield were contacted by authorities to possibly identify the transients. Later, several positive identifications (by area neighbors), as well as the corn pollen identification, led to the conviction of the transients for murder. (Case #77CF65, Illinois versus Bobby Cole and Arthur Wilson, Macoupin County, Illinois, Date of Trial--1979) The above case was relayed by Dr. James King who is presently Director of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

-->Until recently, the New York City Police Department Crime Lab maintained a palynologist on staff by the name of Dr. Edward A. Stanley. It was reported that Dr Stanley was a key person in the solving of several criminal cases. One such case involved a shipment of cocaine hydrochloride that was seized in a New York City drug raid. Though the suspects were not caught, the raid and subsequent cocaine seizure yielded important trafficking information. Palynological analysis of the cocaine hydrochloride revealed a number of different pollen suites that indicated the cocaine was processed in South America (probably Bolivia or Columbia), sent to a locale in northeastern North America where it was "cut and packaged," and finally on to New York where it was "cut" again and in the process of being prepared for distribution when it was seized.

-->Documented Forensic Palynology cases with "legal precedent" are few and far between in the United States. Presently the only country that seems to have fully tapped the enormous potential of Forensic Palynology is New Zealand, with Australia and Malaysia starting to catch up. In the United States the only "Agency" where forensic pollen studies are conducted on a fairly regular basis is the palynology laboratory of Dr. Vaughn Bryant in the Anthropology Department of Texas A&M University.

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