Blood Spatter Evidence Not an Exact Science
By Lisa Hurt Kozarovich
BOONVILLE — With at least a half-dozen blood experts testifying in David Camm’s murder retrial — split on whether evidence indicates his guilt or innocence — it will be up to jurors to decide if they believe analyzing blood stain patterns is science or mere opinion.
Actually, the field of blood stain pattern analysis is probably somewhere in between, said Rod Englert, an expert witness for the prosecution who’s consulted and testified about
blood patterns in more than 375 cases around the country.
Blood stain pattern analysis is documented as far back as a 16th century trial in London, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that it was promoted as a scientific field in the United States. The first time most people heard about blood stain pattern analysis was during the 1956 high-profile trial of Ohio physician Sam Sheppard, accused of murdering his wife.
But some still consider it “junk science,” noting that experiments using items like kitchen sponges and stage blood can’t accurately replicate a crime scene. Camm’s defense team has frequently pointed out that there is no certification process or educational requirements for someone to declare themselves a blood stain pattern analyst.
Camm is on trial for a second time for the Sept. 28, 2000, shooting deaths of his wife Kim, 36, and children, Brad, 7, and Jill, 5. The family was gunned down in the garage of their Georgetown home. Camm was arrested 70 hours later, largely based on Englert’s opinion that there was high-velocity blood spatter on Camm’s shirt proving he was within 4 feet of the shootings.
His first conviction was overturned in 2004.
In a 1991 Idaho case questioning the validity of the blood stain pattern analysis, the state appeals court found, “Many jurisdictions have held that blood spatter analysis is reliable because it is clearly a well–recognized discipline, based upon the laws of physics, which undoubtedly assist[s] the jurors in understanding what occurred.”
Two years later the Supreme Court of Minnesota stated that “the results of blood splatter analysis are generally accepted in the scientific as well as the judicial community” noting that because the techniques are based on “the well-settled sciences of chemistry and physics, the reliability of the technique may be appropriate for judicial notice.”
The case against Camm is largely based on blood evidence, and some jurors in his first trial have said they convicted him on blood evidence, so it’s no surprise that the defense wants to project the idea that blood-stain pattern analysis is nothing more than one person’s interpretation. “It’s not DNA, it’s not fingerprints. It’s someone’s opinion of the evidence,” defense attorney Stacy Uliana said.
But when the nation’s top experts in the field all have the same opinion — most importantly that high-velocity blood spatter on Camm’s shirt, shorts, sock and shoe proves he had to be within 4 feet of his family when they were shot — it’s “significant,” said Floyd County Prosecutor Keith Henderson.
In addition to testimony last week from Englert and nationally-renowned blood spatter expert Tom Bevel, the state will also call State Police Sgt. Dean Marks, to testify that Camm was at the murder scene at the time of the shootings.
Marks, a blood spatter analyst for the State Police crime lab, testified previously that tiny bloodstains on Camm’s shirt are consistent with blood flying backward, toward the shooter, with an extreme amount of force and landing on the clothes. The blood spatter experts said they believe it happened when he leaned in the door of his Ford Bronco and shot his daughter, who was seatbelted in the back seat.
Of course, the defense team plans to call their own blood spatter experts expected to testify that the blood was transferred to and smeared on Camm’s clothing and shoe when he grabbed his son out of the back of the vehicle and laid him down on the garage floor to perform CPR.
The defense team says they’ve been anxious for Englert to take the stand and show the jury that while he may be “smooth” he’s not a scientist.
When Katharine “Kitty” Liell began her cross-examination of Englert late Friday, she said, “You told the jury the evidence doesn’t lie, but how some people interpret events can be different… some people lie … some are mistaken.”
“Absolutely,” said Englert, who was unflappable on the witness stand. When Liell attacked his understanding of sciences, the self-deprecating Englert admitted he had very limited knowledge of hard sciences, like chemistry and trigonometry, saying it wasn’t necessary for what he does in crime scene reconstruction.
Liell appeared flabbergasted that Englert didn’t think understanding things like the chemical makeup of blood and how physics impacts the flight of blood and therefore the pattern it would form wouldn’t be important for him to understand.
After all, according to many definitions of blood stain pattern analysis, scientific principles must be applied to get proper results.
Virginia’s state court of appeals wrote in a 2003 opinion on the validity of the field, “We note that many of the specific physical elements of blood spatter analysis are capable of being tested using the laws of physics and chemistry, and by employing principles of gravity, inertia, and viscosity.
As Liell repeatedly questioned Englert about such principles, he replied “I don’t need to know that for what I do.” He countered, though, that while he didn’t need that knowledge, he frequently consulted other resources and experts in those specific fields to assist.
Englert is somewhat of a celebrity expert and has been involved in several high-profile murder cases, including those of O.J. Simpson, actors Robert Blake and Bob Crane, and Sarah Johnson, a 16-year-old Idaho girl convicted of brutally stabbing her parents to death. He’s not new to New Albany either.
Former prosecutor Stan Faith called on Englert back in 1992 to investigate another local murder — that of Eric Humbert, whose body was never found. Nonetheless, with the help of Englert’s testimony about Humbert’s blood-stained vehicle, the jury only took 35 minutes to convict his best friend, Jonathan Whitesides.
All that tells jurors, Liell says, is that Englert is very experienced at performing for TV cameras and juries. She questioned if he’s as respected in his field as the prosecutors contend.
“He’s called a ‘liar for hire’ for a reason,” Liell said, pointing out the enormous rates experts in the field get paid. Englert reportedly charges about $350 an hour.
The father of blood stain pattern analysis, Herbert MacDonnell, who researched the field for the Department of Justice in the 1960s and ’70s and soon began teaching it to law enforcement personnel, is reportedly the expert who dubbed Englert a “liar for hire” in another case.
Henderson dismisses the attacks on the experts, saying, “It’s a defense strategy. They’ve attacked every witness we’ve had. The jury is smart and they can see through that.”
“The defense is trying to pick apart every little thing, but we’re providing the jury with an overall look — the holistic approach we talk about. What the jury will see is the evidence as a whole — the high-velocity blood spatters on his clothing and shoe, the (human) tissue embedded in his shirt, the brass shavings all over his clothes, the gunshot residue. And the jury is hearing that evidence from some of the top people in the field.”