Arthur Young

Forensic Biologist
Guardian Forensic Sciences

In the rural parish of Acadia, Louisiana, lies the sleepy community of Church Point. Established in the 1700s, this town was named for the spire on its church, which could be seen from miles away - which is what helped people to find it on Sundays.

Early on one particular Sunday morning, a grandmother stepped off her front porch and ambled next door. Her daughter, Priscilla, lived next door with two daughters of her own: Ronata and Keisha.

It was a day like any other. Seeing the door ajar wasn't unusual in this tiny Louisiana community, especially in summer. The elderly woman climbed the porch steps, one at a time, and push open the door... and that's when it stopped being like any other day.

Within minutes, the police soon descended upon the scene. They would find 35-year-old Priscilla dead in her bed, shot several times at close range with a shotgun. The body of 13-year-old Ronata was located at the doorway of her bedroom, shot twice at close range with a shotgun. Detectives had hoped that 2-year-old Keisha had escaped the fate of her mother and sister, as they could not immediately locate her. Maybe she crawled out of the window. Maybe she managed to hide from the killer. Today, "hope" would be nothing more than a word in a dictionary.

The detectives found her body about an hour later. They surmised that, upon hearing the shotgun blasts, that she crawled out of bed, terrified. Her bed was situated in the corner of her bedroom, and she was found under it, huddled in the farthest possible corner. Like her sister, she had been shot twice with a shotgun.

The population of Church Point is less than 5,000, and every single one of them felt this loss. In Church Point, everyone knew everyone else and this was a senseless tragedy that spared no one, not even the veteran detectives of the Acadia Parish Sheriff's Department.

The first piece of evidence I was supposed to examine wound up not getting examined at all. I told myself that, as a forensic biologist, this piece of evidence had no value to me, that there was nothing that I could say about it that people didn't already know. That first piece of evidence was shotgun wadding.

First, a little bit about shotgun shells: they are more than gunpowder, primer, lead pellets (called "shot"), and a nifty plastic container. Sure, when the primer is ignited, it detonates the gunpowder, which, in turn, launches the shot. However, a carrier device is needed, otherwise, this transfer of energy isn't as efficient as it could be. Some shot simply would roll out of the barrel as the force of the gunpowder's explosion rockets past the shot. No, a carrier is needed, a vehicle with which to transfer the energy of the explosion to the individual pieces of shot. That device is called shotgun wadding, a simple plastic cup that looks something like a badminton birdie (or "shuttlecock"). As one might imagine, it's not terribly aerodynamic at supersonic speeds, and typically flutters off, not getting much farther than a couple of yards. However, when a human body is less than three feet away, the shotgun wadding still has enough energy to penetrate the human body.

I held the envelope in my hand. The markings said that it contained a shotgun wadding. I put the envelope down onto the cold black lab bench and stepped outside. It was a hot summer day in Louisiana. I was 27 at the time, but I remember feeling old and cold.

"There's no point in opening the envelope and looking at the shotgun wadding," I said to myself. "I already know whose blood I'm going to find on it," I said to myself. "It was recovered INSIDE a human body--whose blood do they think I'm going to find?" It wasn't the markings that said what the contents were, or the markings that said who it was recovered from that was bothering me... it was the markings that said *where* it was recovered: "From Keisha's abdomen, two inches above her diaper."

I had been doing this long enough to know not to get emotionally involved in cases. It obscures logic and rational thinking. A quest for justice could end in a crusade for vengeance. The burden drags my feet, my heart, my sanity, and my soul.

SCREW IT. Shivering under the summer sun, I made a promise: "I don't care how long it takes me, or how much of my own money or health this case costs me... I will see this case closed."

Joseph was Priscilla's ex-boyfriend, and the biological father of Ronata and Keisha. He was the police's prime suspect, and with good reason. Records going back several years showed numerous 911 calls of domestic violence, as well as restraining orders and garnishments of his wages for child support. When detectives knocked on his door, their eyebrows raised when he complained of ringing in his ears. Soon, he would become so nervous and agitated that he would try to smoke lawn clippings. A search warrant was immediately signed and delivered, the ink practically still wet. The items that were seized were sent to the crime lab.

I started with a pair of jeans, recovered from the suspect's hamper. People go through several shirts in a week, but will usually wear a pair of jeans for days, even weeks, before washing them. "Always start with the jeans," I tell people.

There was nothing obvious at first, not even in the pockets. (Hands always go into the pockets, and bloody hands leave traces of that blood behind.) I then examined the jeans under a stereoscope, which is essentially a high-powered magnifying glass. Blood is hard to find on jeans; the indigo dye masks blood pretty well. However, I have learned that the greatest forensic scientists are either brilliant or persistent... and sometimes both. Brilliance wasn't working, so I guess it was time for persistence. I was finding tiny blood stains on the jeans, and every time I found one, I would place a white adhesive ring around it, the kind used for repairing looseleaf paper.

Two days later, I was done. Not too bad. Time to take a step back. There were over seventy tiny blood stains on these jeans.

Blood is a liquid, almost like any other. Almost. The old saying, "Blood is thicker than water" is true. It's six times thicker, to be exact. This gives it special properties. Like any other liquid, there are cohesive forces that hold that the molecules of a liquid together, which is why it beads on a newly-waxed car. When an external force acts upon a liquid, the energy is transferred to the liquid, usually enough to break those cohesive forces. This results in the pool of liquid breaking up into large drops. The more energy there is in that force, the smaller the drops become. (Thank you, Mr. Kresse!)

Oh, one more thing about blood spatter: it goes everywhere it can, and when it doesn't go somewhere, there's a reason.

With blood, the size of the droplets is predictive of the amount of force exerted. Droplets bigger than three millimeters in diameter indicate a low-velocity force, which is defined as five feet per second or slower (<5 fps). Droplets ranging between one and three millimeters in diameter indicate a medium-velocity force of twenty-five feet per second or more (>25 fps). These droplets, however, were less than one millimeter in diameter, which can only be created by forces moving at one hundred feet per second (>100 fps) or faster. Time to call the detective.

"Hey, it's me." (It's kinda my trademark greeting.) "I've got a question for you."

"What's that?" he said.

"Is the suspect left-handed?"

If I could ever hear someone blink over the phone, this was it. "How the hell can you possibly know that?!?"

"I found blood stains on the jeans, over seventy of them. They're tiny, indicating a high-velocity force. More importantly, I found them on the side of the leg. Combine that with the fact that I found no high-velocity blood stains anywhere else, and that makes this consistent with a standard shotgun stance. Even more importantly, they're all on the right side of the leg, which is the standard shotgun stance of a leftie."

"Is it one of the victims?"

I shrugged and said, "Don't know. I don't even know if it's human yet. I've still got the rest of the evidence to go through."

He smiled and hung up, but not before closing our conversation with "Keep us posted."

Among the evidence that was submitted from the suspect's house were a box of shotgun shells, recovered from a closet in the house. The detective's search of firearms purchases showed that the suspect had never bought a shotgun--he couldn't, because he had been convicted. But the suspect's brother did. When questioned, the suspect's brother said that he had bought it for Joseph. However, the police never found one in the house.

The firearms examiner appeared in my doorway and greeted me with, "You have to come see this." As we walked to the Trace & Firearms section, he told me that the shotgun purchased by Joseph's brother was a single-shot, meaning it had to be reloaded after each firing. I could feel my heart grow darker as we walked down the hallway. The pieces of the killer's profile were beginning to fit together, a profile of a monster. The killer would have had to stick the shotgun under the baby's bed, immune to the howling cries of a child too young and innocent to know what death or mercy meant. And he would pull the trigger. And he would reload. I gritted my teeth. Sometimes, I hate my job. "CSI" made my profession primetime entertainment; in reality, I peel back the sunny facade of civilization and see the shadows and the maggots.

On the stereoscope was one of the shotgun shells from the suspect's closet. At 65X magnification, the shotgun shell revealed its secret: a tiny red flake of blood, about 1/100th the size of a period. While DNA analysis is very sensitive, something that size is too small to get results from. However, this little red flake had thirty-two friends and, together, comprised enough to get a DNA profile. Barely. It turned out to be Priscilla's.

In court, I would explain that Priscilla's blood, energized by the shotgun blast, would produce a fine mist, which would land on everything that it could. I would explain to the jury that, because these droplets were so small, they could only travel a limited distance before air resistance took over. That distance is three feet. I would explain to the jury that finding those high-velocity spatters of Priscilla's blood on Joseph's clothes meant that he was standing within three feet of her when she was shot. I would explain to the jury that its presence on the right side of his right leg suggested a left-handed shotgun stance.

In two hundred years of government, no jury in this courthouse had never sentenced a defendant to death. Until now. After only two hours of deliberation, a jury of twelve men and women decided that this man's crimes deserved the ultimate punishment: execution.

In the aftermath, the detectives, analysts, and technicians realized that we had each other for support; it would have been easy to shield ourselves from these crippling emotions, to deny the grief and pain that surrounded us, lest they consume us. We were a veteran team that had each other. But for the surviving grandmother and the people of Church Point, there was no such network of support, save each other and the church whose steeple drew those people together for two centuries.

And for that... and for them... I wholeheartedly endorse the William J. Burnham Death Scene Awareness Project. It doesn't matter if you're an officer, an analyst, or a survivor--the answer won't be found avoiding your emotions.

It will be found in each other.