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Memento mori


The shotgun barrel rested on her throat, but each time she reached for the trigger the gun slipped. She stretched for it again. Forensis, our resident forensic scientist, recalls another of his cases.

I arrive at the suburban terraced house mid-afternoon, and am led upstairs by the detective. There are dried rivulets of blood running down the edge of the stair woodwork, from the upper floor to the ground. I can’t see blood on the dark upper landing carpet, but I know it must be there. I get a ‘walkthrough’; the quick tour of the key points of the scene. These can be useful but are often laden with the assumptions and expectations of your guide. Everybody has an opinion, in the same way they have an opinion about why their team should have won at the weekend. Their interpretation of the scene often has about as much objectivity and rationality as their match analysis. I listen but not very attentively; looking is more important.

Most people are killed by someone they know, not strangers coming out of the dark

‘There is blood in here’ he said.

I step into the back bedroom. The sheets on the double bed are disturbed and bloodstained.

‘Not much blood,’ he said, ‘just on the bed. We reckon…’

I’m thinking about the blood on the bed. Lots of smears, heavy in places but no big pool. You only get a pool if the bleeding is external. You can literally stab someone to death without causing much bloodshed.

‘We don’t know the cause of death but he’s been shot and stabbed a few times. We’re still trying to piece it all together,’ said the detective.

Most people are killed by someone they know, not strangers coming out of the dark. Most women are killed by their partners or ex-partners; most men are killed by their mates. Guns are unusual weapons in this country. Knives are the clear favourites, ready to hand and deceptively lethal: kitchen devils.

He leads me into the second bedroom, at the front of the house. I  look at a hole in the ceiling above the bed: ragged, about 40cm in diameter, with tiny holes around its edge. A 12-bore shotgun cartridge contains about 200 pellets that leave the muzzle of the gun at over 1,200 feet per second.

‘What did you say her injuries were?’ I ask.

‘Broken collar bone, amongst other things,’ he replies.

‘She was lucky,’ I said.

‘She bottled it at the last minute. When the gun went off it just caught her left shoulder. She’ll be discharged from hospital pretty soon. We’ve charged her with murder,’ he said.

I look around the bedroom. There’s no obvious blood.

‘What’s all that?’ I ask.

‘You won’t believe it,’ he said. He is pleased, as if letting me into a secret.

I walk around the bed and crouch down. About twenty small parcels cover the floor between the bed and window, each with a gift tag attached. I read the message on the nearest parcel, neatly written in blue ink:  ”To my dear friend Mary”.  I look at the other parcels. They are all addressed to a different person, each with a personal message.

‘They’re for her family and mates,’ says my guide. ‘I’ve never seen so many suicide notes in one place.’

I examine the landing. Theory dictates that I form a hypothesis and test it. I might do this eventually but not now. No one knows what has happened here. And the likelihood is that no one ever will. I will come up with an explanation, and that will be blended into all the other evidence to create a narrative for the trial. It will be presented as true, but even if we get a full and honest account from the defendant does that make it true? It doesn’t matter. My focus is practical – a story that is logical and based on what I can observe. And it is a story because I can’t interpret the bloodstain patterns without the information I have been told  about the case.  There’s not much science, in blood pattern interpretation: its ‘sciency’ rather than science.

‘They’re for her family and mates,’ says my guide. ‘I’ve never seen so many suicide notes in one place.’

I start searching the area. Slowly, the possibilities pop into my mind faster than I can think about them or mentally log them for later. Was he shot here or was he stabbed here? Was he shot there and stabbed there? Was he shot first, or stabbed first? Was he stabbed somewhere else, then shot here? Was he stabbed then shot then stabbed again?

As I search, each observation reminds me what needs to be explained, and I work through them. It needs to be done now, while the evidence is in front of me. There is no second chance.

I find bloodstains that have sprayed out from an area on the upper landing. I check other bloodstains on the paintwork, wood and wallpaper; each surface tells you something slightly different. The bloodstains all track back to the same point. The bigger the blood droplets are, the further they will travel from the point of impact. Tiny droplets travel only a few centimetres. Some of these bloodstains are microscopic – so small all you see is a pink colouration, like a watercolour wash over the white paintwork. The more energy involved in the impact – a slap, punch, a kick – the smaller the bloodstains become. Guns generate more energy than any human physical action; this pink ‘misting’ can only be caused by a firearm.

I test the carpet for blood. There is a large area of heavy bloodstaining, an invisible pool of blood. This is where he was shot. And he was shot after he was stabbed, because there is no blood trail between the landing and the bed. There isn’t enough blood on the bed for him to have been shot there: the bed would be soaked in blood and there would be the characteristic pink misting. She stabbed him on the bed then finished him off on the landing.

Some months later I get a letter from the investigator, telling me the result of the trial and thanking me for my work. This is quite unusual. It makes me wonder what the backstory was, to change a murder charge into a manslaughter conviction, and what the jury made of the ‘suicide notes’.