Entry #3 (2013)

“Bring us into your world. What is something about your work (past or present) that outsiders typically don’t understand? It can be something required by the job, something that happens on the job, something you feel about the job—but whatever it is, do not exceed 800 words.

Connecting the Dots

Blood splatter follows a pattern. Once fluid leaves the body, it must bow to the physical laws of gravity and in doing so it sketches a map that accurately guestimates the way a life and death struggle plays out. The forensic mucky-mucks determine the trajectory and angles of impact involved by examining the trail of blood left behind on walls, furniture, floors; even on the victim. The human body is 70% liquid, so that trail is considerably wide.

As a legal secretary who once worked for a defense attorney handling high profile criminal cases, I’ve seen a lot of photographs containing that kind of evidence. The kind that makes you wish you hadn’t had eggs for breakfast. The kind that makes you wonder how the perp could mire himself in so much blood and not have pause to rethink the whole killing business. The kind that reminds you that we all have a shelf life.

We handled other homicides that didn’t involve blood. Strangulation, suffocation, and poison were tidy, sterile in comparison. And while each murder carried the same loss of life, there was something missing in these anemic types of death that didn’t quite measure up to the blood splatter cases. Nothing shouts front page news quicker than a gruesome murder investigation. Love triangles and drug deals gone bad were the worst, leaving behind an autographed savagery fueled by rage. At trial the DA came prepared with crime scene photographs, blown up in bigger-than-life exhibits which they paraded in the courtroom. The defense table watched the jury watch the defendant, trying to square up the muddle of red with the defendant’s well groomed, spotless suit and tie.

Our office was small, and I worked closely with our in-house investigator.  Joe was responsible for paying close attention to these photos, scrutinizing the details, trying to match the cut marks on the victim to the blood splatter in the room, to the story the defendant retold, that fit with the defense strategy our team built. Finding the inconsistencies, the loop holes the prosecution would hang us with, and uncovering what we were going to be asked before we were asked it. By examining the blood splatter, we could retrace the steps of both the perpetrator and the victim and recreate the struggle that took place. It meant re-enacting the crime scene or “doing the dance,” as Joe called it. But here is my confession:  It really was a dance.  Joe would say, “put the right foot here, then take two steps back,” (and so on), and we would strive to create a choreographed ballet that fashioned itself into a pattern when repeated. We’d coin specific dance names from these steps, using the names of the victim, like the Satorski Shuffle, or the Thompson Twist, and even the Betty Hunkle Free Spin.

I’ve never conceived of being able to tell this story without someone asking what rock did you crawl out from under? so I don’t tell it. Appalled looks and disbelieving words come to mind:  callous, unfeeling, cruel, even sociopathic. I get it. But here’s the truth. If we didn’t find a way to laugh at what we did, we’d end up crying. Working day in and day out weighted in that kind of tragedy saturates you and makes it hard to remember which side you’re on. Makes it hard to read your kid a fairy tale story at night. Hard to face the ordinary folk in the real world every day without a sense of loss, knowing you were never going to look at the world again the same way they did. Once that heaviness breaks you, well—you risk losing touch with who the good guys are.

What I want to say is that I’m not proud of those dance moves; not proud that it might be construed as poking fun at the loss of someone’s brother, someone’s mom, someone’s son. Yet I don’t know how we could have survived those years without finding a dose of comic relief. And in the end, you find it where you can find it. For us, it was in the Cheney Cha-cha Slide. Nowadays when I catch a CSI show, or an ER episode, I can’t help but appreciate when a chuckle is written into the script in the midst of a morbidly grim situation, and think that’s right, take a load offBreathe.


Back to the other finalists.

  1. This story takes us where most are reluctant to go, but doesn’t dwell too heavily on the grotesque to make a point. Many have employment that is dull or unfulfilling, yet wouldn’t trade for this job. Letting off steam, here, is a matter of mental health: the jokes about the dead allow the living to slough off some of the wrenching sights we’ve encountered. Nice work.

  2. This grabbed me immediately. Do all of us have jobs that pull us into those dances at times? I remember an entire staff sharing a need for M*A*S*H…

  3. Great piece. You clearly had a respect for the deceased while doing what you had to do to get through. NICE.

  4. […] Entry #3: Connecting the Dots […]

  5. […] in first place, the winner is…#3: Connecting the Dots. I absolutely loved this piece written by a legal secretary about her time working on criminal […]

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