Type O Personalities

The world's foremost bloodstain-pattern analysts convene at a local Holiday Inn to trade gore stories and chatter about spatter

"I know others here have investigated this case," James calls after them. "But I still have questions." He goes on to enumerate his doubts about the murder, for which the boyfriend was convicted in 1988: Unreliable blood tests. A spatterless suspect. Inconsistent bloodstain analysis.

"Take a look at those dollar bills in the victim's hand," James urges. "You see how the bills are spattered. But no spatter underneath. Meaning what? She had those bills out at the time she was shot, right? And what did her boyfriend tell police? That she got money out to pay the nice man who was helping them with directions. That was never even brought up at trial! And the defendant in this case has been on Death Row for five years."

James, whose voice by now has elevated to a shout, glances at his watch self-consciously. "This is the kind of case that makes me very confused about what we're doing in this field," he says quietly.

The furor is immediate. By questioning the work of the Metro-Dade police who worked the crime scene, James has violated an unspoken tenet: You don't assail another bloodstain analyst, at least not to his face. James's faux pas also cuts to the bone of an emerging fissure in the IABPA ranks -- between police experts, who are allied with prosecutors, and private consultants who are increasingly being hired by defense lawyers.

An hour later, as day one draws to a close, the room is still buzzing. "I really created some shit today," James remarks, sucking on a cigarette. "Did you see those guys storm out of here? They had their mouths hanging open."

Across the room, Toby Wolson grits his teeth. "That was an ambush," he mutters. "Stu never told us he was going to present that case. The executive board is going to have to take this up."

Day two opens with a bang. The speaker is Todd Reeves (no relation to Norm), the Dade County Medical Examiner's designated trauma photographer and a man whose comic sensibilities extend beyond gallows humor to a realm fairly characterized as trauma shtick.

While Reeves is supposedly lecturing the group about the technical aspects of photographing trauma, it is obvious from the start that he is equally eager to showcase the fruits of his labor, spatter or no.

Exhibit A: The naked man pictured lying on his stomach. A massive metal pipe traverses the photo, though the relationship between the man and the pipe is not immediately clear .

"This guy was one of my most interesting cases," Reeves says. "He was a fireman working cleanup after Hurricane Andrew who fell onto a volleyball pole. As you can see, the shaft went through his buttocks, then up and out his stomach. The amazing thing is no major organs or arteries were hit. And the guy's alive and well. He was a great sport. Talked the whole time I was taking photos. He still has the pipe, I think."

Reeves runs through three slide trays in the next 90 minutes, the portfolio ranging from blood-smeared crack houses to opulent Coconut Grove manses, from garden-variety beatings to sadistic rapes. He chases each ghoulish image with a cheery photo tip. ("A dual light source gives you better emphasis on bruising," he says. "For diffuse spatter, try a flash.") On the heels of one especially messy shotgun suicide, Reeves gets smacked with The Question.

The Question, of course, regards AIDS. Isn't it a tad foolhardy to snap photos with all that blood around?

Like many bloodstain analysts, however, Reeves is surprisingly blase about the subject. "You've got some of these places where they make you wear scuba equipment just to do autopsies. I think they're going a little overboard, precautionwise. Most of this blood has been sitting around for hours." He hand-waves dismissively.

Anticipating The Other Question, Reeves adds, "They give me a beeper, so I can always be reached if something worth shooting comes in. A few weeks ago, for instance, a Cuban refugee down at Guantanamo Naval Base jumped the fence and stepped on a land mine. Blew his foot clean off. Great opportunity! Now, some people may be saying, 'How can you call that a great opportunity?' But the thing is, we hardly ever get to see land-mine trauma up here."

He gazes into the darkened room. "It's hard to beat Miami for death and destruction." He exits to spirited applause, after receiving his complimentary IABPA coffee mug from Wolson.

To outsiders, such bravado and joshing lends bloodstain analysts the appearance of callous geeks, or perhaps all-out sickos. But the levity they throw at mangled bodies is more often a defense mechanism employed to fend off the brutality of their science.

"Others may only glance at these things on the TV news, but we must figure out how they happen," observes Franaois Julien, the Canadian whose videotaped suicide caused such a stir. "We would prefer that they don't happen. But in our world they do. This tape of the young man killing himself, for instance. There are police who will tell you that it is impossible for a man to shoot himself with a shotgun and to maintain his grip. But you can see, in this case he kept hold of the gun. This is something we have learned. To learn we must look."

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