Blood Spatter Analysis Little More than Junk Science Dec 29, 2018 17:02:13 GMT -5
Post by Joanna on Dec 29, 2018 17:02:13 GMT -5
Blood Spatter Analysis Little More than Junk Science
“I tucked Joel in, but I feel so guilty I didn’t hold him longer,” Julie Rea recalled, her voice welling with emotion. This is all she can muster about the worst night of her life. As she attempts to continue, she breaks down.
In the early morning hours of Monday, Oct. 13, 1997, Rea was jolted awake by a scream in her Lawrenceville, Illinois, home. She discovered an intruder, but found no sign of her 10-year-old son. She told police she struggled with the man, who fled, then ran for help. But it was too late. Her child, Joel Kirkpatrick, had been stabbed to death.
At the time of the murder, Rea was a divorced mother working toward a doctorate in educational psychology. She had divorced Joel’s father three years earlier and was leading a quiet, uneventful life in the wake of a turbulent marriage. The mild-mannered daughter of missionaries, Rea had devoted herself to her bright, inquisitive son. But in 2000, after a protracted and deeply flawed investigation, Rea was charged with killing Joel. “Surviving your child’s murder, only to find out that you’re being accused of murdering your child, is a kind of trauma that I wouldn’t wish on any living being,” Rea, now 50, said. “I wouldn’t wish it on a snake.”
Prosecutors used a forensic discipline called bloodstain-pattern (often referred to as “blood spatter”) analysis to argue that an intruder never entered the home on the night of the crime and that Rea herself was responsible for her son’s death. She was convicted of first-degree murder in 2002 largely on the strength of the testimony of two bloodstain-pattern analysts.
Four years later, Rea was acquitted at a second trial after a legal team assembled by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law in Chicago mounted a vigorous defense that challenged the state’s forensic testimony. They also presented new evidence that Tommy Lynn Sells – a serial killer of children and lifelong drifter who had been sentenced to death in Texas for an almost identical crime – had confessed to killing Joel. Rea was formally exonerated in 2010.
Today she belongs to a growing community of victims: Americans who were wrongly convicted with the help of forensic disciplines allowed into courtrooms despite little to no proof of their reliability. Of the 362 people who have been exonerated based on DNA tests in the United States, faulty forensics contributed to almost half the underlying convictions. Like Rea, these exonerees have had years of their lives stolen and many have struggled to find their place in the world after surviving the crucible of incarceration.
A year before Rea’s exoneration, the National Academy of Sciences had released a report that called into doubt the reliability of bloodstain-pattern analysis. The conclusions of those who profess to interpret blood spatter were often “more subjective than scientific” and open to “context bias,” the 2009 report said. “Some experts extrapolate far beyond what can be supported,” it said, and cautioned, “The uncertainties associated with bloodstain-pattern analysis are enormous.”
The report criticized a wide range of forensic disciplines, including the analysis of hairs, fibers, bite marks and shoe and tire impressions. Its authors found that many of these disciplines were not grounded in hard data and extensive, peer-reviewed research, but instead relied upon practitioners’ personal interpretations. “The law’s greatest dilemma in its heavy reliance on forensic evidence,” the report continued, “concerns the question of whether – and to what extent – there is science in any given forensic science discipline.”
The report called for sweeping reform. Yet almost a decade later, little has changed. In the field of bloodstain-pattern analysis, rigorous research that might determine the accuracy of analysts’ findings is scant. Bite-mark analysis – which, in 2016, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology declared had no scientific validity – is still admitted in criminal prosecutions. So, too, is microscopic hair comparison, an outmoded and dangerously flawed technique that has, to date, led to the convictions of 75 people who were later exonerated by DNA testing. “Forensic science should be treated like any other consumer product,” said M. Chris Fabricant, director of strategic litigation at the Innocence Project in New York City. “Before it’s allowed to be used on human beings, it should be scientifically tested and clinically demonstrated to be reliable, just like toothpaste.” But as long as courts continue to admit forensic evidence proffered by prosecutors, and prosecutors continue to win convictions using it, “There is no incentive to change,” he added.
Bad science also affects defendants whose cases never go to trial. About 95 percent of criminal cases are resolved with plea bargains and in such cases, forensic work often goes unchallenged. “The mere threat of scientific evidence being used in court is often sufficient to induce a plea,” Fabricant continued.
Defendants convicted on the strength of dubious forensic testimony languish in prison, while those who have won their freedom, like Rea, try to put their lives back together. The $87,057 in compensation she received from the state of Illinois has proven to be cold comfort. Struggling with PTSD and reeling from the abuse she endured behind bars, she continues to suffer. Being branded a child killer “separated me from society,” Rea charged. “I’ll always have a scarlet letter. Nothing will ever make that go away.”
On that fateful morning 20 years ago, Lesa Bridgett, awakened around 4:30 to the sounds of Rea pounding on her front door. Her neighbor was barefoot, clad only in a T-shirt and underwear. She looked frantic and she was speaking so rapidly she was difficult to understand. Hoping to calm her, Bridgett pulled the 28-year-old into a bear hug. “Joel’s gone,” Rea shrieked.
Court records indicate she told police she’d run into Joel’s room after hearing a scream and saw only his empty bed. A man in a ski mask lunged at her and Rea – who had a black belt in taekwondo – struggled with him, chasing him through the house and into the backyard. He slammed her head to the ground before making his escape. Hysterical, she told Bridgett she thought Joel had been kidnapped. But when Lawrence County Deputy Sheriff Dennis York arrived and searched the home, he found Joel. The 5th-grader lay on his bedroom floor between his empty bed and the nearby wall. His pajamas were drenched in blood and he had been stabbed 12 times, twice in the aorta.
When Rea was told that her son was dead, she erupted into screams. She was taken to the hospital with a black eye, rug burns on her knees, a wound on her right arm that required stitches, and scratches and abrasions on her head, both shoulders and the tops of her feet. In her fragile state of mind, she did not grasp that investigators were already eyeing her as a suspect. They had not been able to find any obvious signs of forced entry into the home and Rea could not remember locking the back door, but told police it was safe to assume she had.
Rea hardly fit the profile of a woman who would drive a knife into her child’s heart. She had no history of mental illness or criminal record, nor did her behavior in the hours leading up to the child’s murder suggest anything was amiss. She and Joel had spent an unremarkable evening at home with her best friend, Trena Woodward, and Woodward’s children. The two women had spent the evening scrapbooking.
A plodding investigation followed, with few leads. The murder weapon – a steak knife pulled from a butcher block in Rea’s kitchen – did not yield any fingerprints. Investigators had little to go on, having failed to perform basic police work that might have pinpointed the identity of an intruder. They never dusted Joel’s bedroom for fingerprints nor the butcher block from which the knife was pulled, and failed to preserve critical trace evidence on Joel’s bed covers. Instead, they focused on Rea. Looking for any remnants of blood that she might have attempted to wash away, investigators dug up her septic tank, inspected her sink and shower drains and examined the laundry items in her washing machine. They sprayed luminol, a chemical that detects the presence of blood, around her house – and found nothing.
But they couldn’t come up with a motive either. Rea, who shared custody of Joel with her ex-husband, Leonard Kirkpatrick, had fought for more time with their son. Kirkpatrick had been awarded physical custody of the boy after he remarried – a decision Rea had fiercely protested, filing her latest appeal two weeks before her Joel’s death.
In the wake of the murder, Rea could not bear to be alone. Terrified of the dark, she rarely slept. She stayed in an apartment 85 miles away in Bloomington, Indiana, where she had been commuting to Indiana University. A rotation of friends stayed with her around the clock. “To fall asleep, I had to have someone on either side of me and the lights on,” she remembered. She got a German shepherd that she took with her almost everywhere. Though she managed to teach at the university, she was plagued by panic attacks and debilitating anxiety. Several times, investigators appeared at her apartment and workplace unannounced.
The investigation sputtered along until 2000, when the Illinois State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor’s Office, which routinely handles complex prosecutions for rural counties, took the case to a grand jury. On the eve of the third anniversary of Joel’s murder, Rea was indicted. Prosecutors had no eyewitnesses, little forensic evidence and couldn’t come up with a motive. They would rely on a forensic discipline that had helped win circumstantial cases before: bloodstain-pattern analysis.
Bloodstain-pattern analysis is rooted in the belief that drops, spatters and trails of blood at a crime scene are rich repositories of information that can be used to reverse engineer and even reconstruct crimes. Many practitioners are law enforcement officers who have no background in science. Nevertheless, their expert testimony often lends a sense of scientific certainty to circumstantial cases and can be a powerful tool in the hands of prosecutors. “An expert who says, ‘This is what the physical evidence shows,’ is extremely persuasive, especially in a circumstantial case,” said Judy Royal, a staff attorney with the Center on Wrongful Convictions who began working on Rea’s case in 2003. “Jurors don’t understand when an expert is overstating findings or going beyond what can be tested and replicated.”
This fact has been laid bare in cases around the country in which bloodstain-pattern analysis has figured prominently – most recently that of Joe Bryan, a former high school principal who was convicted of the 1985 murder of his wife in Clifton, Texas. Bryan was the subject of a two-part investigation by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine this spring that questioned the accuracy of the bloodstain-pattern analysis used to convict him. The Texas Forensic Science Commission, a national leader in criminal justice reform, found in July the conclusions of the prosecution’s bloodstain-pattern expert, Robert Thorman, were “not accurate or scientifically supported.” In September, Thorman conceded in an affidavit that some of his conclusions were wrong. Bryan, whose attorneys have asked that his conviction be overturned and whose case is before Texas’ highest criminal court, has spent 31 years in prison. A judge recently recommended Bryan’s conviction stand, finding that “Thorman’s testimony was not important to the case.”
Bryan’s and Rea’s cases are not the only ones in which a bloodstain-pattern analyst has delivered testimony that was later called into question. From Oregon to Texas, from North Carolina to New York, convictions that hinged on the testimony of a bloodstain-pattern analyst have been overturned and the defendants acquitted, or the charges dropped. As recently as last February, a judge vacated the conviction of a Missouri man named Brad Jennings for the 2006 murder of his wife, Lisa, after evidence emerged that supported his claim that his wife committed suicide. Jennings was released from prison after eight years behind bars.
Bloodstain-pattern analysis was most clearly discredited in the case of an Indiana state trooper, David Camm, who found his wife and two children shot to death in their home in 2000 and was quickly charged with their murders. Over the course of three trials, prosecutors presented a succession of bloodstain-pattern analysts who testified that eight specks of blood found on the T-shirt Camm wore on the night of the crime were “high-velocity impact spatter” from the shooting. The defense produced its own bloodstain experts, who argued the specks in question were actually “transfer stains” – blood that blotted Camm’s T-shirt as he attempted to render aid. Camm was acquitted in 2013 after spending 13 years in prison. Another man, a burglar with a long rap sheet whose DNA was found at the crime scene, was convicted of the murders and imprisoned.
The retired biochemist and forensic scientist Robert Shaler, one of the authors of the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report and the founding director of Pennsylvania State University’s Forensic Science Program, testified for the defense in the Camm case that experts on both sides were incorrect. Specks of blood, he argued, were too little information from which to draw any meaningful conclusion. “The experts couldn’t even agree on the type of pattern they were looking at,” he said in an interview.
Camm’s lead attorney at his third trial, Richard Kammen, was even more blunt. “People see what they want to see,” he said of bloodstain-pattern analysis. “It’s as accurate as a Ouija board.”
When Rea stood trial for her son’s murder in February 2002, bloodstain-pattern analysis took center stage. Like Camm’s case, Rea’s hinged on a minuscule amount of blood that stained her T-shirt on the night of the slaying. Almost all of it was her blood, which had seeped from the wound on her arm. But a tiny smear on her shirt’s right shoulder was found to be that of her son. DNA testing of two other small bloodstains on her shirt established a possible – though not definitive – link to Joel. The defense would argue that Joel’s blood had likely been transferred onto Rea’s shirt when she scuffled with the bloodied intruder.
The prosecution called two bloodstain-pattern analysts who asserted there had been no intruder. The first was Rod Englert, a retired police detective and past president of the International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts. He began by performing a lengthy demonstration using theatrical blood to show the jury how different kinds of blood spatter are created. Holding forth without interruption, he introduced the forensic discipline’s basic principles and lexicon. Bloodstain-pattern analysis, he explained, allowed investigators “to put the pieces of the puzzle together.” It was with this imprimatur of legitimacy that Englert delivered his findings. He concluded the crime scene had been “staged and manipulated” and was “not consistent with her story of a struggle.” His expert opinion was based on both his examination of the evidence, he insisted, and his “experience of having gone to many, many scenes, many like this, hundreds of scenes.” He saw “no indication that there was a third party in this residence.”
The task of interpreting the bloodstains on Rea’s T-shirt was left up to Dexter Bartlett, a crime scene investigator with the Illinois State Police. Bartlett told the jury that Joel’s blood could not have transferred onto her shirt and was more consistent with her wielding a weapon. Bartlett offered no proof of this – no experiments he had conducted, no data and no explanation of the methodology he used to arrive at his conclusions.
The defense called its own bloodstain-pattern analyst, Paul Kish, a forensic consultant who testified his microscopic examination of the T-shirt led him to believe Joel’s blood had been transferred onto it. The blood rested on top of the fibers, he told jurors; it had not penetrated the weave of the fabric, as blood cast off a weapon would be expected to do.
Who was right and who was wrong was left to jurors to sort out. Rea’s public defender, Brad Vaughn, implored them to remember that none of the claims made by the state’s bloodstain-pattern analysts could be verified and they had not conducted any experiments to test their conclusions. “That’s not scientific,” Vaughn told the jury. “Science is about establishing: ‘This is scientific and true because I can recreate it. I can duplicate it. I know within a range that this can be done this way.’ There was no attempt to do that.”
The other prosecution strategy was to cast Rea – whom friends and family described as a caring, attentive parent – as a bad mother. Her ex-husband testified she had considered having an abortion when she discovered, at the age of 17, she was pregnant with Joel. Neighbors claimed she behaved erratically, even coldly, in the immediate aftermath of the crime. One neighbor told the jury Rea, though initially hysterical, never cried. These claims went largely unchallenged because Rea’s attorney didn’t call her to the stand. In the end, the jury found Rea guilty and she was sentenced to 65 years in prison.
Then in 2004, there was a sensational development in the case: Serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells told Illinois investigators he had broken into a house in 1997, stabbed a boy to death using a knife he pulled from a butcher block in the kitchen and sparred with a woman both inside and outside the house. Sells was facing execution in Texas for fatally stabbing a 13-year-old girl after breaking into her family’s home and he had been linked to several other murders of children around the country. The same year, an Illinois appellate court overturned Rea’s conviction because of a legal error and ordered a new trial.
At her 2006 retrial, prosecutors doubled down on bloodstain-pattern analysis when they once again called Englert to the stand. But this time, Englert – who had delivered some of the state’s most damning testimony in the Camm case – focused on a theory he had did not mention at Rea’s first trial. In examining her T-shirt, he said he had seen evidence that “a bloody hand pushed up” against it. The source of the blood, he added, could only have been “Joel’s bloodied hands.” His testimony suggested a horrifying scenario: Joel had tried to push his mother away as she plunged a knife into him. Under cross-examination, Englert admitted he never obtained measurements of Joel’s hands for comparison. Englert, who stands by his testimony, recently claimed any differences in his testimony in the two trials was likely the result of variations in the prosecutor’s questions.
Testifying for the defense, forensic consultant Kenneth Moses challenged whether Englert had used the scientific method to arrive at his conclusion. “I have seen nothing to indicate that this area was studied for that purpose and data collected, comparisons made and some sort of a conclusion or hypothesis drawn,” Moses said, referring to the T-shirt. “There is no scientific basis for making such a claim.”
The defense went on to argue that Rea’s injuries on the night of the murder could not have been self-inflicted and investigators had missed clues that pointed to an intruder. They also played the audio of Sells’ confession for the jury. The lifelong drifter had confessed to numerous other crimes and some of his accounts strained credulity. But the defense bolstered its case by introducing evidence suggesting Sells had been near Lawrenceville, Illinois, around the time of Joel’s murder. Most importantly, Rea took the stand to tell her story, insisting she had “absolutely not” killed her son.
When the jury returned a not guilty verdict on July 26, 2006, Rea let out a primal cry. Her knees buckled beneath her as she fell to the floor. “I thought everything would be better,” she said. “I thought I might go to law school or finish my doctoral degree. I thought I’d be strong and able to help other people and give back to my family and friends who had given so much to me. I just had no idea what it would be like.”
Instead, at the time of her acquittal, Rea was still reeling – not only from her son’s violent death and two criminal prosecutions, but from the trauma of incarceration. She is reluctant to discuss the physical and emotional abuse she endured during the almost four years she spent behind bars except to say she was reviled by both inmates and guards. “What I had supposedly done was considered to be the one unforgivable sin,” she said.
Additionally, despite her acquittal, she soon discovered she had to continue living under the weight of suspicion. Prosecutors in the case still spoke of her as though she killed her son. Edwin Parkinson, the lead prosecutor in her case, told reporters, “The jury found her not guilty; they did not find her innocent.” Parkinson did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite intensive therapy and faith, Rea struggled. Marriage to a man she wed shortly before her first trial, who believed so fervently in her innocence that he went to law school to aid in her defense, unraveled in the years following her acquittal. She also had difficulty finding a job. Knowing her previous conviction would surface one way or another, she was up front with prospective employers. “After the person interviewing me picked their jaw up off the floor,” she said, “the job would be offered to someone else.” The difficulties continued even after she was formally exonerated by an Illinois circuit court in 2010.
In 2011, Rea moved to Tennessee, where her parents live, hoping for a fresh start. She tried a number of ventures, including opening a bed-and-breakfast, but none came to fruition. She is currently unemployed and apprehensive about the future. “I have no income right now,” she admitted. “I don’t know what to do.”
She is painfully aware that what happened to her – and to Camm, Jennings and others wrongly convicted on the strength of bloodstain-pattern analysis – changed nothing. Prosecutors continue to use bloodstain-pattern analysis in even the most circumstantial of cases and judges keep allowing it into the courtroom, largely unexamined.
A working group of forensic scientists and bloodstain-pattern practitioners, which is overseen by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, has recently called for more stringent standards and drafted new guidelines for bloodstain-pattern analysts.
But the most significant reform efforts that are currently underway have been brought about by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, whose decisions often prompt other states to follow suit. The commission has determined that bloodstain-pattern analysis that is used to reconstruct a crime must be performed by an organization or individual who is accredited – not a self-styled expert – if it is to be allowed in a Texas court. The group also has plans to educate the state’s criminal court judges by creating a resource they can consult that will describe each forensic discipline’s standards and limitations, as well as potential red flags. “When judges let everything in because they don’t have the tools to do better, we are in a situation where the only thing stopping overstated testimony is the analyst’s own ability to exercise self-restraint,” said Lynn Garcia, the commission’s general counsel. “When life, liberty and justice for the victim is at stake, that is nothing short of terrifying.”
For Rea, the reforms will come too late. “Joel still needs justice,” she said. “He’s never seen a day of it. My acquittal just got us back to level ground.” She deplores the fact Sells, whom she believes killed Joel, will never be charged with his murder – he was executed in 2014.
Over and over again, Rea has wished she had awakened sooner on the night Joel was murdered. Then she could have saved her son, she believes, or died trying.
Sources: Pammela Colloff, ProPublica, December 20, 2018, and New York Times Magazine.
Note: Darlie Routier was convicted on blood spatter analysis performed by blood spatter “expert” Tom Bevel, whose credibility is questionable and who has been described as nothing more than a “hired gun.”