Fiber Analyst Lynn Henson Helps Unravel the Atlanta Murders

UPDATED 07/27/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/27/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

After the thousands of hours of investigation into the murders of 28 young blacks in Atlanta, the first case to come to trial may literally hang by a thread. And among the dozens of city, county, state and federal law officers who have been involved in the investigation, a quiet young woman from Florida—an expert on those threads—may help provide the decisive evaluation.

Lynn Henson, 28, of the Florida State Crime Lab in Tallahassee, was called in to help analyze evidence gathered against Wayne B. Williams, 23, arrested in the strangulation death of day laborer Nathaniel Cater, 27, whose nude body was found in the Chattahoochee River in May. At a preliminary hearing last month, Georgia State Crime Laboratory microanalyst Larry Peterson, after consulting with Henson, testified that synthetic fibers found on Cater's body showed "no significant differences" from the samples taken from Williams' home and station wagon.

Henson declines comment on the Atlanta case; if Williams is indicted, she could be called to testify as an expert witness. Last year her testimony figured prominently in the Florida trial of Theodore Bundy—earlier convicted of killing two college students—for the 1978 murder of Kimberly Leach, 12. For three months Henson had painstakingly analyzed thousands of particles gathered from the defendant's and victim's clothes, as well as a carpet in a van Bundy had stolen. Evidence of 98 separate "cross transfers" of fibers—where a particle found on Bundy matched one on Leach, for instance—led her to estimate in court that contact between Bundy and Leach was "very probable." Bundy was convicted.

Fiber analysis in crime solving dates to Europe in the 1840s. And at the turn of the century the Sherlock Holmes stories popularized the "elementary" concept of deducing crime solutions from trace evidence found in dust, clumps of dirt, spots of blood and even minute scratches in metal objects. The theory was summarized in the exchange principle postulated by Edmond Locard, a French criminologist of the 1920s; as Henson puts it, "You cannot walk into a room and walk out without leaving something of yourself in that room and taking something of it out."

But fiber microanalysis came into its own only in the late 1950s, when man-made threads—more distinct, more varied and thus more readily traceable than natural counterparts—hit the mass market. Still, even advanced techniques using heat, light and chemicals to analyze samples are taught mainly on the job in crime labs.

Henson, one of five children of an Orlando phone company worker and a schoolteacher, graduated from Florida State University with a major in criminology and a minor in chemistry. She joined the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in 1975 as a technician. Now she spends most of her time in the lab but sometimes collects evidence at crime scenes. After she retrieved material from Leach's body, which had been stuffed into a hog shed, she had nightmares for days. "You have to learn that this is a dead body, not human," she says. "But Leach just got to me, probably because it was a child."

In Atlanta, because the prosecution so far seems to be relying heavily on fiber evidence, microanalysis and the "trace evidence" it produces may be on trial. "Its usefulness depends on what else is brought forward," says Dr. Byron Dawson, assistant director of forensic science at the Georgia Crime Lab. "Trace evidence is only as good as a prosecutor makes it. If it's not properly used, it's worthless."

Henson doesn't overestimate her specialty: "It can't prove a person was definitely in contact with another person at a given time. It can provide a very strong link between a suspect and a victim and a location."

Bob Dekle, who prosecuted the Leach case for Suwannee County, is more impressed by the effect micro-analytic evidence has on juries. "What was so great about Lynn's work was the defense offered not one stick of evidence to try and undermine it," he says, "because they couldn't."

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