If not for the plaster cast on her leg, Paulette Sutton would be rolling in blood. Instead, she slouches in a doorway, watching her partner ram his bloody shoulder against a wall, drop to his hands and knees, and crawl across a grimy carpet, leaving behind a trail of red-smudged handprints.
"I'm not used to letting him have all the fun," she grouses.
Over the past six months, Sutton, one of the country's most respected bloodstain-pattern analysts, has taken her show on the road -- blood-spattering her way across the United States. The National Institutes of Justice and the University of Tennessee's Law Enforcement Innovation Center sponsor
Sutton's mission: to educate, often
re-educate, homicide detectives and crime-scene investigators about the meaning and value of bloodstain evidence. For, according to Sutton, hers is a forensic specialty as drenched in myth and misconception as it is in gore.
A 27-year veteran of the Shelby County Medical Examiner's office in Memphis, Sutton is the widely published protge of Herb MacDonell, the acknowledged father of bloodstain-pattern analysis in North America. "She's almost as good as I think I am," says MacDonell. When pressed for a serious assessment, MacDonell ranks Sutton as among the two or three best.
Without leg cast, Sutton stands a sturdy 5 feet 5, with a short thatch of salt-and-pepper hair framing a tanned face etched with laugh lines. On this day a torn foot ligament has forced her to take an unaccustomed backseat to her own protg, Steve Nichols. When not accompanying Sutton on road trips, Nichols works primarily as a forensic toxicologist. Today he is doing his best Jackson Pollock across the hospital-green walls of a derelict schoolhouse outside Lexington, South Carolina. (Sutton and Nichols use horse blood drawn during veterinary procedures and then thinned, with a splash of water, to mimic the consistency of human blood.)
"Give them a little arterial gushing," directs Sutton, referring to the wave-like patterns produced by a severed artery under the pressure of a still-beating heart. "They always like a little arterial."
The master, having decided to add some finishing touches to Nichols' tableau, dons white coveralls and purple surgical gloves and hobbles across the room. She opens a plastic tackle box and, passing over compartments of bullet casings, matted hair and one-shot liquor bottles, selects some broken acrylic fingernails, playing cards and fake dollar bills. She smears them with blood poured from a bottle and flicks them across a table and onto the floor.
"We usually include at least one card game gone bad," she says of the half-dozen mock homicides laid out in the school's disheveled classrooms. Tomorrow, six police teams will work the scenes, applying Sutton's teachings to develop theories as to weapons used, number of assailants, angles of attack, and possible progression of events.
Sutton's most experienced students often present the greatest challenge,
she says, for many longtime law enforcement officials have some fairly predictable if inaccurate preconceptions. Sutton describes a recent death investigation involving a known drunkard found dead in a vacant house. Photographs show the dead man's face to be a bloody pulp. "The lieutenant told me he had proof positive that it was an accident because there was no sign of cast-off," says Sutton, referring to the bloodstain pattern created when blood slings off a weapon, another object or the human body in motion. "I don't care if you swing a bloody cat by the tail, you won't always see cast-off," says Sutton.