Bloodstain pattern analysis

National Academy of Sciences ISBN (identifier) Fluid dynamics

Bloodstain Pattern Analysis (BPA) is the study and analysis of bloodstains at a known or suspected crime scene with the purpose of drawing conclusions about the nature, timing and other details of the crime.[1] It is one of the several specialties of forensic science.[2]

The use of bloodstains as evidence is not new. However, since the late 1950s, BPA experts have claimed to be able to use biology, physics (fluid dynamics), and mathematical calculations to reconstruct with accuracy events at a crime scene, and these claims have been accepted by the justice system. For example, the shape of blood droplets might be used to draw conclusions as to how far away the victim was from a gun when he or she was shot.

Bloodstain pattern analysis has drawn considerable skeptical scrutiny since 2000.[3][4] A comprehensive 2009 National Academy of Sciences report concluded that "the uncertainties associated with bloodstain pattern analysis are enormous" and that purported bloodstain pattern experts's opinions are "more subjective than scientific."[5][4] The report highlighted several incidents of blood spatter analysts to overstate their qualifications as well as questioned the reliability of their methods.[5][6]


Early history

Bloodstain pattern analysis has been used informally for centuries, but the first modern study of blood stains was in 1895. Dr. Eduard Piotrowski of the University of Kraków published a paper titled "On the formation, form, direction, and spreading of blood stains after blunt trauma to the head."[7][8] A number of publications describing various aspects of blood stains were published, but his publication did not lead to a systematic analysis. LeMoyne Snyder's widely used book Homicide Investigation (first published in 1941 and updated occasionally through at least the 1970s) also briefly mentioned details that later bloodstain experts would expand upon (e.g., that blood dries at a relatively predictable rate; that arterial blood is a brighter red color than other blood; that bloodstains tend to fall in certain patterns based on the motion of an attacker and victim).[9] A 1952 episode of the police procedural radio series Dragnet made reference to bloodstain pattern analysis to reconstruct a shooting incident.[10]

Acceptance as valid evidence in United States courts

Between 1880 and 1957, courts in Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, and California rejected expert testimony for bloodspatter analysis, generally holding that it added nothing to the jurors' own evaluations of bloodstains submitted as evidence.[4] In 1957, the California Supreme Court became the first American court to accept expert testimony examining bloodstains, accepting as evidence the testimony of Paul L. Kirk, a professor of biochemistry and criminalistics.[4] He would also testify in the Sam Sheppard case in 1966, when the wife of an osteopathic physician was beaten to death in her home, interpreting bloodspatter evidence as proof that the murderer was left-handed (Sheppard was right-handed).[4] However, bloodstain pattern analysis would not begin to enter wide use until it was promoted by Herbert Leon MacDonell. MacDonell researched bloodstains with a grant from the United States Department of Justice, and which also published his research in the book "Flight Characteristics and Stain Patterns of Human Blood" (1971).[4] MacDonell testified in court on multiple occasions as an expert of bloodstain analysis, and the legal precedent set by these cases led to its widespread use in American courts, although as early as 1980 some judges expressed strong doubts about its reliability, and it was not always accepted as evidence, especially in states with no prior rulings that relied on such evidence.[4]

The first formal bloodstain training course was given by MacDonell in 1973 in Jackson, Mississippi. MacDonell taught workshops on how to conduct bloodstain analysis, and the newly trained bloodstain analysts, who often had received as little as 40 hours of instruction, in turn would give expert testimony in court cases.[4] In 1983, the International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts was founded by a group of blood stain analysts to help develop the emerging field of bloodstain pattern analysis.[8]

Further investigation into its admissibility as evidence

Starting in 1995, court cases where bloodstain analysts disagreed with each other raised concerns of the discipline's prediction's admissibility as evidence in court.[11][12][13] In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences published an examination of forensic methods used in United States courts which harshly criticized both bloodstain pattern analysis and the credentials of the majority of the analysts and experts in the field.[4][12] Judges have largely ignored the report's findings and continue to accept bloodstain pattern analysis as expert evidence.[4]

In 2013 Daniel Attinger, a fluid dynamics researcher at Columbia University, published a paper on bloodstain pattern analysis in Forensic Science International, finding that many of the central hypotheses of bloodstain analysis remain untested, and that existing analysts often made incorrect assumptions or other errors in their analyses. The paper also proposed fluid dynamics as a theoretical framework for solving these problems, and Attinger has continued to publish several papers exploring these concepts (as have other scientists as well). However, these papers are largely theoretical, and have had little impact on the use of bloodstain analysis in courts.[4]


Bloodstain pattern analysis uses an analysis of the color, shape, and size of blood stains at a crime scene, as well as principles of fluid mechanics and biology to draw conclusions about the nature and proceedings of a crime scene. Particular attention is given to determining the angle of impact that caused a blood stain, in order to determine the blood's origin and the amount of force behind it.[14] Sometimes, software specifically designed to aid in bloodstain pattern analysis, such as HemoSpat, is used.

Bloodstain pattern analysis often uses extensive forensic photography in order to provide evidence for conclusions.


While bloodstain pattern analysis can be a useful tool for investigators, the reliability of courtroom testimony by bloodstain pattern analysts has come under fire, particularly in the wake of a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences,[4] which found the method of analysis to be "subjective rather than scientific", and that it involved an "enormous" degree of uncertainty.[15] In addition to concerns over methodology, the report criticized the lack of proper certification requirements for analysts and an emphasis on "experience over scientific foundations".[15] Many bloodstain pattern analysts have testified in court as experts despite having received training only in the form of a 40-hour course taught independently by MacDonell or one of his students, without institutional accreditation or minimum educational requiurements.[4] Even with proper training and methods, there are still many times where reputable analysts disagree on their findings, which calls into question the reliability of their conclusions and its value as evidence in court.[6]

There is very little empirical evidence to support the use of blood spatter analysis in court or any other aspect of the legal system.[4] While certain aspects of bloodstain pattern analysis are supported by scientific studies, such as determining the speed of the splattering blood, some analysts go well beyond what is verifiable.[15] In addition to problems with the underlying scientific validity of the method, the circumstances of bloodstain pattern analyses, which are often conducted at the behest of either the prosecution or the defense in a court case, can introduce confirmation bias into the analyst's assessment.[15]

Relevant case histories

Warren Horinek

A 1995 murder case against Warren Horinek was largely decided based on bloodstain evidence that has been hotly disputed after the fact.[11] The case was bizarre in that the police and the district attorney's office believed in Horinek's innocence. The appointed attorneys for the prosecution found a bloodstain pattern analyst who testified that, rather than being a suicide as believed for a number of reasons by police, it was a murder due to the pattern of small blood flecks found on the accused, which according to the analyst had to have come from "high velocity" blood from a gunshot, rather than blood that simply got on him through his attempts to provide medical aid to the victim. Other bloodstain pattern analysts have since disputed this claim and said that the bloodstains were consistent with medical aid. The original analyst has conceded that his claim is not as strong as he originally presented it as being, although he still believes in Horinek's guilt.[11] As of 2017, Horinek remains in prison.[16]

David Camm

In the criminal case against David Camm, who was tried three times for the murder of his family largely on the basis of blood spatter evidence, both prosecution and the defense used expert bloodstain pattern analysts to interpret the source of the approximately 8 drops of blood on his shirt. The prosecution's experts included Tom Bevel and Rod Englert, who testified that the stains were high-velocity impact spatter. Paul Kish, Barton Epstein, Paulette Sutton, Barrie Goetz, and Stuart H. James testified for the defense that the stains were transferred from his shirt brushing against his daughter's hair.[12] Dr. Robert Shaler, Founding Director of the Penn State Forensic Science Program, decried blood spatter analysis as unreliable in the Camm case. "The problem, in this case, is the number of stains [ ⁠is ⁠] minimal," he said. "I think you're really on the edge of reliability." All of the blood spatter analysts involved in the case are "experts" in the traditional sense. The problem is "We have two opinions in this case. That, in essence, is a 50 percent error rate." This would be ⁠an unacceptable level of reliability in a court case given that the perception of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is what is required.[17]

Further complicating matters was the testimony of Rob Stites, who testified for the prosecution as an expert blood spatter analyst. It was later uncovered that he had no training and his credentials were fabrications by the prosecutor. His testimony that the blood on Camm's shirt was high-velocity impact spatter aided in the conviction of David Camm. Dr. Shaler pointed out that one limitation of blood spatter analysis testimony is that "you do not have the supporting underlying science" to back up your conclusions. When Stites testified, the jury had no way of knowing that he was not the expert that he purported to be. Even among the expert witnesses, it is unknown which set of experts interpreted the stains accurately as there is no objective way of determining which bloodstain pattern analyst has applied the science correctly.[18]

Travis Stay

Other times, bloodstain patterns from different causes can mimic each other. In the 2008 trial of Travis Stay for the murder of Joel Lovelien, prosecution witness Terry Laber testified that the blood spatter on Stay's clothing came from blows to Lovelien during a fist fight. After a review of the evidence by Paul Kish, another bloodstain pattern analyst, Laber reviewed the report submitted by Kish and revised his findings to include the possibility that the blood came from expiration by Lovelien.[13]

2016 Texas legal review

In 2016, the Texas Forensic Science Commission reviewed cases that had used bloodstain pattern analysis, and consequently established that starting in 2019, bloodstain pattern analysts will need accreditation to testify as experts in Texas courts.[4]

In popular culture


  1. ^ A Simplified Guide To Bloodstain Pattern Analysis, The National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC), Florida International University
  2. ^ Bloodstain Pattern Analysis, Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Minnesota Department of Public Safety
  3. ^ Adam Janos. How Bloodstain Pattern Analysis Works and Why It's So Controversial, A&E Television Networks
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Smith, Leora (13 December 2018). "How a Dubious Forensic Science Spread Like a Virus". ProPublica. Retrieved 19 December 2018.
  5. ^ a b National Research Council. Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2009. Archived
  6. ^ a b Moore, Solomon (February 4, 2009). "Science found wanting in nation's crime labs". New York Times.
  7. ^ Eduard Piotrowski, Ueber Entstehung, Form, Richtung und Ausbreitung der Blutspuren nach Hiebwunden des Kopfes [On the formation, form, direction, and spreading of blood stains after blunt trauma to the head] (Vienna, Austria: 1895).
  8. ^ a b Brodbeck, Silke (2012). "Introduction to bloodstain pattern analysis" (PDF). Journal for Police Science and Practice. 2: 51–57. doi:10.7396/IE_2012_E.
  9. ^ Snyder, LeMoyne (1971). Homicide Investigation: Practical Information for Coroners, Police Officers, and Other Investigators. Charles C. Thompson Publishers, 3rd Edition
  10. ^ "Judging from the bloodstains found on the furniture and rug in the living room, and on the front steps of the cottage, Radford had first been shot while he was in the living room..." Quote starts at about 12 minutes and 17 seconds into the episode. "The Big Streetcar", April 3, 1952; no script writer identified.
  11. ^ a b c A Bloody Injustice
  12. ^ a b c Kozarovich, Lisa Hurt. "Blood Spatter Evidence Not an exact Science". News and Tribune. Retrieved 8 February 2014.
  13. ^ a b Archie Ingersoll. Travis Stay found not guilty, Grand Forks Herald, December 17, 2008
  14. ^ Stuart H. James, Paul E. Kish, T. Paulette Sutton (2005). Principles of Bloodstain Pattern Analysis: Theory and Practice. Boca Raton, FL: CRC ISBN 9780849320149
  15. ^ a b c d Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward (PDF). The National Academies Press. 2009. pp. 177–179. ISBN 978-0-309-13135-3. Retrieved 8 September 2020.
  16. ^ Bloody Injustice - The Warren Horinek Case
  17. ^ Kircher, Travis. "David Camm blogsite: Our own little experiment". WDRB. Retrieved January 1, 2014.
  18. ^ Kircher, Travis. "David Camm blogsite: Uncle Sam". WDRB. Retrieved January 1, 2014.