Published: Jan. 28, 2016
Forensic Plant Science book jacket

They have been at if for decades, these two sleuths from CU-Boulder, using their expertise in plant forensics to help investigators solve crimes, often murder.

And now the pair, emeritus professors Jane Bock and David Norris, have teamed up on a new forensic plant science book expected to aid detectives, lawyers and judges around the world in better understanding and solving crimes. Years in the making and published by Academic Press, the book, Forensic Plant Science, came out Jan. 15.

While much of their investigative work has been in Colorado, they have given court depositions in other states and even other countries. The two, who came to CU-Boulder as faculty in what is now the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in the late 1960s, have been involved in about 50 cases, primarily criminal, and each has served as expert witnesses in homicide cases for both the prosecution and defense.

Bock’s specialty is plant anatomy, ecology and evolution, while Norris is an expert in endocrinology – the study of hormones – which are chemical messengers that help cells communicate. Their careers in forensic botany began in 1982 when they were approached by a Denver-area coroner wondering if they could identify the stomach contents of a young female murder victim.

Their success in helping to solve that murder and others got the attention of law enforcement officials both nationally and internationally.

“One of the goals of the book is to show the legal community the value and efficacy of evidence from plant science,” says Bock. “A second goal is to encourage those who have an interest in or are trained in plant science to pursue forensic botany as a career.”

The new book includes plant science ecology and anatomy, evidence collection techniques at crime scenes, and analyses of digested plant material. The book’s companion website hosts an updatable atlas of microbial images of common plants that may be encountered in criminal investigations including human digestive tracts, fecal materials, or plant evidence from suspects, victims or vehicles.

One high-profile case they worked involved a woman named Jill Coit, nicknamed “The Black Widow,” who was married 11 times to nine different husbands and was suspected of murdering her ninth husband in Steamboat Springs, Colorado in 1993. Evidence gathered by Bock and Norris from the victim’s stomach helped to lead to the conviction of Coit and her boyfriend Michael Backus of first-degree murder in 1995.

In another case, two bunches of sunflowers – one found atop a murder victim in an eastern Colorado ditch, a second pulled from the ground next to the body by an investigator – were delivered to CU-Boulder. Bock placed the fresh flowers in a greenhouse on the roof of her building and the flowers from atop the victim in a freezer. She checked both every day until the degrees of wilting matched, concluding the crime had been committed roughly a week before the body’s discovery.

As members of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, Bock and Norris have lectured at colleges and scientific meetings in the U.S., England, Australia and New Zealand. They also have given short courses for high school teachers, law enforcement agencies -- including the FBI -- and professional societies. In addition, Norris has been teaching a course he designed, Forensic Biology, to CU-Boulder students for the past five years.

Norris notes that about a third of the cases he and Bock have worked on resulted in confessions. “There were a number of cases where once a suspect was caught in a lie, he or she would confess to the crime. I was quite surprised how frequently this occurred.”

Several of the cases Bock and Norris were involved in were featured on the popular documentary TV series, Forensic Files. Reruns of the show still air today.

For more information on Forensic Plant Science visit the Elsevier online book store.