Death. Destruction. Science. It’s a winner!

By Anna Sandiford 20/11/2011 3


I am feeling very proud of myself because I have apparently just won ScienceTeller 2011′s Best Science Story Competition! I am very excited. I have never won anything before.

Entry was open to submissions with a science, wildlife, natural history, health, travel or culture focus, the entries must have been completed on or after 1 January, 2008 and they must have been submitted by the creator of the work.  So I decided to enter a bit of my recent book – the part that most people don’t read – the Prologue (with a bit of tweaking, because I can’t help it).  For those who are interested, here it is:

Death. Destruction. Science.

I am standing in a large, old, unfurnished room that has a partially carpeted concrete floor and only one exit door.  A convicted murderer stands between me and the exit.  There’s nowhere to hide.

Now I have to kneel on the floor with my head bowed down, close to the unmoving dirt and dust that lies around the edges of the room.  The air is hot, humid, heavy, oppressive.  Sweat slowly rolls down through my hair and I hope he can’t see it — it’s a sign of weakness and I don’t want him to know about it.  I can feel him looking right at me.  I feel self-conscious and I don’t know whether I should meet his eye.  As I look around, I see blood on the floor.  Fresh, warm blood.  I’m so close to it I can taste it at the back of my mouth.  I know it’s fresh because I saw it spill onto the floor.  I try not to breathe it in but I can’t help it, it’s everywhere I look.  There are bloodied sockprints across the entire floor, made by the convicted murderer as he paced about.

This isn’t just any murderer, he’s notorious, probably the most notorious in New Zealand history.  He was convicted of murdering five people, one of whom fought for his life after being shot through the hand — a defence injury — and across the top of the head; the victim was eventually strangled with his own t-shirt.

After the first four victims were shot, he’s supposed to have lain in wait for his final victim, waiting in a sitting room alcove, waiting to shoot him through a gap in the curtains.  This murderer was tried, convicted and sentenced in 1995 to a mandatory life term in prison, minimum parole period of 16 years.  Yet here he is after 12 years, standing between me and my only way out.  How did he get in here, with me?  How did I get here?

This was my own choice.  I invited this mass murderer into this room and now I’m in here with him.  I know the door’s unlocked but there’s a chair pushed up against the door to stop it being opened from outside.  The man brought someone with him, another man, who is forthright and solidly built, determined.

The questions in my mind should be, am I afraid?  How can I get out of here alive?  The actual question is, how big are his feet?  The man in question is David Bain.  The other man is Joe Karam.  I am here because they have asked me to help the Defence Team with the retrial of David Bain.  I am here because I am a forensic scientist.

 

***

 

Now that we know I’m a forensic scientist and why I was scratching around on a floor, let’s look at that scene again.

I am standing in a large, old, unfurnished room that has a partially carpeted concrete floor and only one exit door.  The carpet has been put down by me and consists of strips of different types of carpet: a section of wool-rich cut pile here, a section of synthetic cut pile there.  This is because there is no surviving piece of the actual carpet that had been in the house at Every Street because it was not retained by the Police or the scientists and the house was burnt to the ground, with the carpet still inside, two weeks after the deaths.

There are long sheets of paper underneath the edges of the test carpet to prevent blood getting on the concrete.  Unsealed concrete is absorbent and it’ll soak up the blood, which I don’t want.

David Bain does indeed stand between me and the exit.  That’s because he’s been told to stand there whilst I finish getting everything sorted out.

Now I am kneeling on the floor with my head bowed down, close to the unmoving dirt and dust around the edges of the room. I’m doing this so that I can label each carpet section so they don’t get mixed up.

The air is hot, humid, heavy and oppressive. I’d forgotten just how hot it can get in Auckland in summer, particularly so if one is in an enclosed space with a metal roof, baking like an oven.

Sweat slowly rolls down through my hair and I really hope he nor anyone else can see it — if it drips on my working notes it doesn’t set a good impression.  No windows are open and there’s no ventilation — there’s a Burmese cat outside desperate to get in because she can smell the blood, and she’s yowling like only a cat of the Far Eastern persuasion can yowl.  If she gets in then we’ll never get her out and she could cause havoc with the tests we’re doing.  Again, not a good look.

I can feel David Bain looking at me.  Not surprising really, seeing as it’s me who’s directing him about when to put his foot in cow’s blood.

I don’t know whether I should meet his eye.  I don’t normally have anything whatsoever to do with Defendants in any case I ever do.  In civil cases the word defendant can be replaced with plaintiff.  Whatever they’re called, I don’t have any contact with them and I prefer it that way.  Having to meet a Defendant is unusual and I have to keep it impersonal.  That means I have to border on being rude, which goes against my instincts — I hate it when people are rude to me, there’s just no need for it.

As I look around, I see blood on the floor of this room we’re in.  Fresh, warm blood, which I can taste at the back of my mouth because I’m so close to it. I know it’s fresh because I saw it spill onto the floor.  Well, to be honest, it didn’t exactly spill, more of a pour-into-a-tray than a spill.  It’s fresh because I collected it from a supplier this morning, who got it from an abattoir even earlier in the day.  It’s whole blood so that it mimics as closely as possible the way whole human blood behaves when it’s liberated from the body.  ‘Whole blood’ is the term used to describe blood from which nothing has been removed.  Serum, platelets, fibrinogen, all sorts of components of blood can be removed from it to be used for a whole range of things, mostly in the biomedical field.  In fact, the company that provided this blood usually provides antibodies, serum and other biological mixes for diagnostic testing purposes.  They clearly thought I was mad when I asked if I could have some whole blood so that we could walk it around the floor using feet and socks.

There are bloodied sock prints across the entire floor, made by David Bain as he paced about.  This is a good thing.  We’re supposed to be doing this in order to test the length of the sock prints he would make if he walked in blood and then walked across carpet.  My role in the retrial of David Bain was to assess the size of the sockprints that would be deposited if he stood in wet blood.  This was not something new that was dreamt up by the Defence team for the retrial; this was work that had previously been undertaken by a forensic scientist for the Crown but they used someone with a similar sized foot to David Bain.  My job was to use David Bain’s actual right foot.  This would give the most accurate result, rather than using a foot of similar size because even people with the same length feet will distribute their weight on them in different ways, both when they walk and when they are standing.

The door’s unlocked but there’s a chair pushed up against the door to stop it being opened from outside. This is to stop anyone walking in by mistake and also to prevent accidental admission of said cat.

The man who accompanied David Bain is Joe Karam, who, I think, is fairly described as forthright, solidly built and looks like he might have played some serious sport at some point in his life.  He was, in fact an All Black (which means he played rugby union for New Zealand).  He looks determined because he is.  He’s very determined and focussed.  He’s fought long and hard for a retrial and it’s approaching at a rapid pace.  When David Bain and Joe Karam arrive to do these sock print tests, there are only supposed to be two weeks before the start of the trial.  Luckily for me, the start date is delayed by another two weeks, until 6 March.  It gives me a bit more report preparation time.  Never rush a scientific report, especially if it’s to be used in court, especially if it’s going to be used in what has been termed the ’trial of the century’ by the media.  It strikes me that it’s the trial of the century because the media has made it that way, but what do I know?  I wasn’t here when the killings occurred in 1994, I wasn’t here for the first trial, the Appeal.  I’m not even a kiwi.

This man isn’t just any murderer, he’s notorious.  This is true — he is one of the most, if not the most, notorious alleged murderers in New Zealand history.  He was convicted of murdering five people, five members of his family, when he was 22.  It was his brother, Stephen, who fought for his life after being shot through the hand, across the top of the head and was ultimately strangled with his own t-shirt.

According to the Crown case, after he had shot four of his family members, David Bain went out and did his paper round before coming home, waiting in an alcove in the sitting room for his father to come into the house from the caravan where he was living, shooting his father, turning on the family computer, typing his father’s fake suicide message and then calling the Police.

David Bain was tried, convicted and sentenced in 1995.  In 2007, the Privy Council in London determined a gross miscarriage of justice had occurred.  The New Zealand Solicitor General ordered a retrial, which took place between 6 March and 5 June 2009.

 

So here they both are.  David Bain has obligingly put his foot in cow’s blood, walked around some pieces of carpet, gone home to wherever it is he stays.  Joe Karam has departed as well, to go wherever he goes.  I’m left with the prospect of shifting sections of carpet to a photographic laboratory so they can be sprayed with a blood-enhancing chemical and photographed under special lighting conditions.  The original scene examination had included spraying of carpets with the preparation Luminol, which is a liquid chemical mix and gives off a bluish light (which is the result of the chemical mixture reacting with the iron in the blood).  Luminol is most commonly used at crime scenes to visualise blood not otherwise visible to the naked eye, such in those cases when blood has been spilt and then cleaned up.  It is also very useful when examining dark surfaces on which blood would not have much of a contrast.  If a bloodied foot or sock print is visualised using Luminol it might be possible to measure that print.

Because this work is being done in mid-summer, it doesn’t even think about getting dark until 10pm, which means it’s going to be a late night.  The blood-enhancing chemical, Luminol, needs to be used in darkness.  The photo studio doesn’t have full window coverings so we have to wait until it gets dark.  By the time the sock prints have been sprayed, measured, sprayed again and photographed, it’s 2am.  I’m tired, dehydrated (standard laboratory practice: no drinks or food) and, not for the first time and not for the last, I’ll wonder what the hell possessed me to think that being a forensic scientist was such a bloody good idea.

[Official bit: this work is adapted from Expert Witness by Anna Sandiford, published by Harper Collins NZ in May 2011.  Harper Collins has given permission for this work to be adapted as long as full credit is given to the original work and the publishers.]


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