University of California, Davis insect identification expert Lynn Kimsey will appear April 6 and April 10, in a television documentary chronicling her testimony in a landmark "insects-on-the-radiator" trial which led to a murder conviction.
The documentary, "Bugs in My Alibi," part of Animal Planet's Animal Witness show, is scheduled to air at 11:30 a.m., April 6 and again at 11 a.m., April 10. (Check local listings.)
For Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor and chair of the Department of Entomology, her involvement in the case began in the summer of 2003 when FBI agents and the Bakersfield police hauled a radiator from a rental car into the Bohart Museum and asked her to identify the insects and where they were from.
Much later she learned that the rental car was driven by murder suspect Vincent Brothers, accused of killing five members of his family in Bakersfield, Calif.
Brothers, a former vice principal of a Bakersfield elementary school, was arrested April 24, 2007, and charged with the July 8, 2003 murders, but claimed he never left Ohio in the rental car. The insects proved otherwise.
Kimsey, one of 137 witnesses called to testify in the internationally publicized case, told the court that several insect species picked from the car parts are found only in the West and one was abundant in California. They included a large grasshopper, a paper wasp and two “true bugs.” (A true bug is a wingless or four-winged insect in the order Hemiptera, with mouthparts adapted for piercing and sucking.)
The grasshopper is found in the Great Plains and the eastern slope of the Rockies. The paper wasp’s territory is west of the 100 meridian, with California as “its center of abundance,” she said. The two true bugs are also found only in the West; “both are found in Southern California, Arizona and Utah.”
The Bakersfield trial began Feb. 22, 2007, and ended May 15, 2007, with the jury convicting the 44-year-old defendant of five counts of first-degree murder in the shooting and stabbing deaths of his estranged wife, three children (ages four, two, and six weeks) and mother-in-law. On Sept. 27, 2007, the court imposed the death penalty. Brothers is now on death row in San Quentin prison.
In a telephone interview June 1, 2007, Kern County Deputy District Attorney Lisa Green, who prosecuted the case, described Kimsey as “an excellent witness and extremely knowledgeable.”
“From the prosecution’s point of view, half of the battle is being able to have witnesses knowledgeable in their field and the ability to explain that knowledge,” Green said, noting that Kimsey is not only an expert in her field, but a teacher.
“She taught me about the insects so I could understand the field and feel familiar enough to cross-examine their (defense) witnesses. Her help was invaluable.”
When Kimsey and senior museum scientist Steve Heydon picked off the insects from the car parts (it took them seven or eight hours), “we found no butterflies — no painted ladies, no sulphur butterflies. That indicated to us that the car wasn’t driven during the day, but at night.”
“The insects we found were consistent with two major routes to get to California from the East,” said Kimsey, adding that court testimony revealed “4,500 unaccounted-for miles” on the rental car.
During her five-hour testimony, illustrated with a slide show, the UC Davis entomologist showed the distribution of the insects on a U.S. map, and compared insect photos from the car parts with specimens from the Bohart Museum.
Kimsey identified the large grasshopper by its leg, comparing the size, coloration and markings to a specimen at the museum. She testified that the hind legs of the grasshopper “help us identify” the species. The size of the large leg (red with black markings) indicated that the grasshopper measured “close to 2 inches long.”
The insect evidence corroborated with the mileage on the vehicle, which had to have been driven west,” Green said in the June 1 telephone interview. “The defendant said he was in Columbus, Ohio, and never traveled out West.”
“Dr. Kimsey’s testimony, combined with the mileage, strongly suggested this was not true,” Green said.
The insects that Kimsey singled out in her court testimony, as being west of the Rockies:
• Xanthippus corallipes pantherinus: large grasshopper, found west of the Rockies and eastern slope of the Rockies.
• Neacoryphus rubicollis: true bug, found in Arizona, California and Utah.
• Genus Piesma (family Piesmatidae): true bug found in Arizona, California and Utah.
• Polistes aurifer: paper wasp, found in Arizona, California, Oregon, Nevada, Washington, Idaho and Utah.
Kimsey, director of one of the country’s largest insect museums, and considered one of the country's foremost insect identification experts, has identified insects for more than three decades. She manages the insect diagnostic service on the UC Davis campus (through the Department of Entomology).
The author of some 90 publications, Kimsey focuses her research on the biology and evolution of insects; biogeography of insects; functional morphology, dealing with the form and structure of insects; and systematics, or the science of classification.
Kimsey was trained by world-renowned entomologist Richard M. Bohart (1913-2007) of UC Davis, who founded the Bohart Museum in 1946.