Daily Archives: April 13, 2010

Blood Shouts: Review of Blood Secrets by Katherine Ramsland

On June 12, 1994, a barking dog in the exclusive Brentwood enclave of Los Angeles alerted a neighbor to a scene that would soon garner headlines around the world: the double homicide of a young waiter, Ronald Goldman, and Nicole Brown Simpson, former wife of football great O. J. Simpson. Police went to Simpson’s home to check on his welfare and noted a bloodstain on the door of his white Ford Bronco. A trail of blood led up to the house, but Simpson had just flown to Chicago. When questioned, he denied having anything to do with it, although a fresh cut on his hand proved suspicious. Then several droplets of blood at the scene failed to show a match with Brown or Goldman. Their killer had cut himself.

Simpson’s blood was drawn for testing, which indicated that the unknown blood had three factors in common with Simpson’s and that only one person in 57 billion could produce an equivalent match. In addition, the blood was found near footprints made by a rare and expensive type of shoe—O. J.’s size. Next to the bodies was a bloodstained black leather glove that bore traces of fiber from Goldman’s jeans, and it matched a bloody glove found that night on his property. Traces of blood from both victims were lifted from it, as well as from inside Simpson’s car and house, along with blood that contained his DNA. His blood and Goldman’s were found mixed together on the car’s console. Simpson was arrested and charged.

Forensic serologists at the California Department of Justice, along with a private contractor, did the sophisticated DNA testing. Three crime labs determined that the DNA in the drops of blood at the scene matched Simpson’s.

Nevertheless, at Simpson’s trial the following year, criminalist Dr. Henry Lee testified that there appeared to be something wrong with the way the blood was packaged, leading the defense to propose that samples had been switched, blood had been planted, and the improper storage had degraded the samples past the point of accuracy.

The jury acquitted Simpson, and over a dozen books came out during the late 1990s from both sides to analyze the case.

Now, Rod Englert, a 46-year veteran of law enforcement, a homicide investigator, and an expert in blood spatter pattern analysis, has published Blood Secrets (St. Martin’s Press, April 2010; $25.99, co-wrtten with Kathy Passero). Among the many case evaluations he includes is the one he performed for the O. J. Simpson investigation. When assistant DA Marcia Clark invited his opinion, she told him “The crime is a goldmine for blood spatter analysis.”

Englert inspected every aspect of the crime and every significant surface and material, making fifteen separate trips to LA. He noted that almost all of the smears and spatters at the scene were sixteen inches from the ground or lower, which told him that the victims were on the ground when most of the bloodshed occurred. He surmised that Brown had been knocked unconscious and thus had not struggled with her attacker. The lack of blood on the bottom of her bare feet confirmed this. Goldman, on the other hand, had put up an enormous fight, fending off an aggressive knife attack. Because the back of his shirt was ripped but there were no wounds on his back, the killer “had wrenched Goldman’s shirt around almost backward in his effort to hang on to his victim.”

With blood evidence and information about the victims’ positions, Englert brainstormed with the team and reconstructed the scenario as this: “The killer had moved back and forth between his victims after they were incapacitated,” probably to ensure they were both dead. Before he fled, he cut Brown’s throat and punctured Goldman’s abdomen. It was also clear to Englert, after he ran several experiments with dogs, that Brown’s agitated Akita had probably walked through the blood, pawed at her, and possibly brushed against her in a protective stance.

Although Clark had expected Englert to testify, he took the stand. In this book, he provides the account he would have told the courtroom, as well as a quick assessment of what should the jury should have learned.

Just how Englert became a blood spatter analyst is, in itself, an unusual tale. To get readers there, he first describes his experience as a rookie cop, which led to his interest in learning how crime scenes are reconstructed.  Owning a cattle business on the side, he had a ready-made lab, as long as one could think outside the box…er, stall. He had cow’s blood, as much as he wanted, and a large barn to spatter it in. This chapter is well worth the read for any forensic scientist, if only to admire Englert’s innovations. “I dribbled blood from my fingertips,” he writes, “from the points of knives, and from holes in plastic garbage bags dragged across the barn floor. I tried the same tests on cement, gravel, dirt, sand, grass, wood and carpet to find out how the trails of blood differed….I made notes about how the blood got absorbed or distorted…” He shot into the blood with different types of guns, hit puddles of blood with bats, hammers, and boards, and scrutinized fine mist, thick drops, and cast-off patterns. He also wore different types of clothing to see how blood soaked into various materials.

Interpreting blood spatter patterns is a both a science and an art, but it can’t be fully learned from books. It requires practical hands-on experience and plenty of it. The shape of a blood drop can reveal a lot about the conditions in which it flew and fell, and Englert lays out the peculiar physics of blood spatter. When force is applied, for example, the amount of blood, shape of the drops, angle of impact, and location of a spatter at the crime scene will indicate everything from its velocity to the type of weapon used to how many people were involved. Blood with more weight travels farther, and it only travels so far in a straight line before it curves downward.

Bloodstain patterns help the investigators understand the positions and the means by which a victim and suspect moved, interacted, and possibly struggled through the scene. Investigators can then look for fingerprints, footprints, hairs, fibers and other forms of trace evidence. “I work my way backward through the chapters,” Englert writes “who, what, when, where, and how—until at last I reach the first page and find out how the story began.” In addition, an accurate reconstruction helps investigators determine which of witness and/or suspect is telling the truth.

Back to the Simpson case. Englert was certain that the blood evidence had provided “incontrovertible proof that Simpson had murdered Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman.” He offers details, one item at a time, to back up his statement, focusing on Simpson’s socks, Goldman’s shoes, and Simpson’s car. He insists that despite claims of blood being planted, no one could plant that much blood spatter authentically enough to fool an experienced analyst. Englert fully demonstrates why this is so. “Truth,” he says, “got lost in the circus.”

In this engaging and readable book, Englert includes many different types of cases, some involving celebrities, some with a vexing mystery, and some from long ago, including a bullet trajectory analysis from the 1863 battle at Gettysburg.  He even admits to his errors, but the point of this book is to lay out the general process of blood spatter pattern analysis and show how each case has its own individual twists.

Ann Rule wrote the foreword and it’s clear that she’s familiar with Englert’s approach. She rightly says that “most of us involved in the circle of forensic science experts know one another…we are a motley crew, a fraternity who studies the blackest side of human nature and manages to find justice for victims of crimes and the truth for their survivors.” In fact, Englert has been involved in some of the cases about which Rule has written, and she had encouraged him to write a book. It’s no wonder that she’s pleased with the result.

There aren’t many casebooks available within the specific framework of blood spatter analysis; most are textbooks. Thus, Blood Secrets is different. It’s a full story about the life of a man who became an expert in one of crime’s most complex forms of evidence, and his analysis on many of the cases he’s worked. Thus, he gives readers a human side as much as an educational source – there’s something for true crime readers as well as for experts in the field. Blood spatter forensics has become an essential part of crime analysis, and the blood of victims will speak volumes about what happened to them when they can no longer speak for themselves.

Dr. Katherine Ramsland chairs the Department of Social Sciences at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, where she teaches forensic psychology and graduate-level criminal justice.


Posted by on April 13, 2010 in Blood Analysis, Guest Blogger

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