Talking Knives – Marc MacYoung (Conflict Manager Magazine APRIL, 2015)

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I am a court recognized expert witness regarding knife use and violence. Yes, lawyers pay me. Don’t be a hater. The down side is I have to deal with lawyers.

One thing lawyers always tell me is “Your job is to educate the jury.” I politely smile and respond, “My first job is to educate you about knife use so you can ask me the right questions …so I can educate the jury.”

Ever tried to teach a lawyer anything?  

This especially when it comes to your field? It’ll drive you to drink. Or if you’re an author, it will drive you to write something. I wrote this ‘appendix’ so I can hand it to lawyers. (I’m also planning a series on “Violence for Attorneys.”) After they read it, we are talking the same language when it comes to knife use. Prior to that? The Tower of Babel. Now they can ask me intelligent questions to educate the jury.

This break down also explains how I can look at autopsy photos and ER photos and — while I can’t with 100% tell you what it was —I can rule out a lot of things. Basically, I can  tell you what it wasn’t. This just from looking at the wound patterns. How do I do this? Simple, different attack methodologies result in different wound patterns.

Knife Use Stratagems

This summation was co-created with Terry Trahan to articulate different types of knife usage among humans. The purpose of this list is not to demonstrate what a specific incident was, but to help rule out what it wasn’t.

Knives are first and foremost tools. Their primary purpose of tools is paramount in both design and use. Having said that when these items are used as weapons, there tends to be broad categories usage strategies. These strategies tend produce recognizable wound patterns and targeting.

Overwhelmingly ‘knife fighting’ is a myth. While certain cultures have systemized arts, (escrima, silat, piper) these tend to be poorer countries, where knives are easily accessible because of a high reliance on manual labor. The marketing of these ‘martial arts’ and Hollywood are why the idea of ‘knife fighting’ exists. In reality knives are used in a much different method.  However, let’s start by referring to one specific branch of martial arts that claims to teach knife fighting.

FMA/knife combatives. Filipino Martial Arts (FMA  such as escrima/eskrima/kali) and combative knife systems tend to be largely ‘dueling systems.’ The strategies largely are predicated on mutually armed opponents fighting over issues of honor (mutual aggressors).  As such, the danger posed by the equally armed opponent must be neutralized for the safety of the duelist. This often results in multiple, wounding slashes — especially to the arm (“defanging the snake”) and torso. Allowing for honor to be satisfied, engagements using such training can result in no wounds at all (the two participants ‘dance around’ showing their bravery but never connect). Another result can be multiple and extensive wounding patterns without a fatal blow. Still a third option is extensive wounding with a ‘closing’ and finishing/fatal wound (delivered when the opponent is incapable of resisting.)

Commercialized FMA systems — as taught in the U.S. — often leave out closing and finishing moves. They typically hang back and repeatedly slash.  If they do close they often continue to slash and stab ineffectively. Much Americanized FMA training encourages what the author refers to as ‘the weedwhacker of death’ approach to inflicting multiple slash wounds; this strategy is ingrained by the training drills. This makes it impossible to distinguish between commercialized FMA trained attacks, rage or fear attacks by the wound patterns alone.

Knife combative systems are often marketed as having military roots. In reality, most of what is taught is commercialized FMA techniques performed with militaristic looking equipment. Use of these systems also tends to result in excessive slashing wounds and an overkill approach.

Having addressed the knife-to-knife approach, ordinarily, only one person has the knife. But even there predictable patterns arise from strategic goals:

Prison methods are more of an assassination strategy where specific vital targets are aimed at and repeatedly attacked.  For example, seven or eight stab wounds under the left armpit. The gang and prison connection extends this knowledge outside prison walls. Due to the improvised nature of the blades in prison, cutting is restricted inside, but can be incorporated outside. (Often resulting in multiple, targeted fatal wounds followed by a larger ‘finishing one.’) The safety of the attacker is usually ensured by a second person holding the targeted individual while the attacker with the shank delivers multiple fatal wounds to a specific spot. This can also occur with multiple attackers targeting different vital areas while other hold the victim. Although an individual attacker doing the same cannot be ruled out, coordinated multiple attackers are most common.

Military methods tend to focus more on immediate neutralization and fatality —starting with sentry removal. U.S. military knife tactics were primarily influenced by Colonel Rex Applegate (who learned under Captains Fairbairn and Sykes of the British Army in WWII) as part of commando operations. Although method has changed over the decades, doctrine remains the same, immediate neutralization of an enemy soldier via massive damage with one strike. Specific actions, once the knife is inserted, combined with selective targeting can create faster neutralization at this range than a bullet.
The targeting, size and the degree of the injury usually renders one’s opponent incapable of prolonged threat or resistance. Additional safety of the knifer is ensured by concurrent techniques that render the enemy incapable of resisting, counter-attacking or crying out.

Rage attacks tend to result in multiple large wounds as the attacker attempts to ‘beat the person’ while holding a knife. Slashes and other wounds tend to range from 10 up to 24 inches and appear all over the body (including on the back as the victim attempts to flee). They also tend to be not specifically targeted at vital areas, but instead are aimed at head, torso and arms. Also common in these kinds of attacks are defensive wounds, when the victim puts up his or her arms to shield the body from the attacks. Also slashes occur on front, side and back as the victim. This often occurs because realizing he or she is being injured, the victim often attempts to flee during a barrage of attacks.

If and when the attacker changes to stabbing attacks it is not uncommon for the attacker to self-wound.  Most vital targets are soft. A rage attack often hits bone. Often, as the attacker is trying to strike with as much force as possible, he loses grip on a utility knife and his hand slides off the handle and onto the blade creating a specific type of self-injury. Also common in these kinds of attacks are massive amounts of blood spatter on the attacker. This is mostly due to the extended nature of these attacks, closing and continued wounding.

Robbery, although wounds or killing are not common (unless the victim attempts to resist) this can be best understood as a ‘stalled attack.’ Violence routinely comes with instructions how to avoid it. These instructions tend to occur before a physical attack is initiated. With muggings this order is reversed. Basically using deception to cover the significance of his actions, the criminal sets up the range and positioning for an attack, starts the attack, and then stops before it lands. What was an attack stops and is followed by instructions how to keep the attack from finishing (e.g., give me your wallet). If the person resists, the completion of the attack often follows. While a single slash as punishment is common to the face, neck, upper chest and arms. Depending on the degree of resistance by the victim depends on the amount of injury.

Message blade use is common among criminals and certain ethnic groups. It is sometimes fatal (e.g., decapitation) sometimes not (i.e., nostril slitting, cutting off ears and nipples). The use of a blade is very deliberate in order to send a message to others, often through sheer savagery. For example the individual is not just killed with a blade, but hacked apart for intimidation. Especially in situations where more effective weapons are available, the use of a knife sends a clear message about crossing or betraying certain groups. Whereas deliberate but non-fatal maiming (i.e. nostril slitting, cutting off ears or fingers) combine sending a message to others about crossing a group, a lesson for the maimed person, and also demonstrates contempt for the individual left alive (i.e., you/your group are not strong enough to stand up to me/my group).

Brandishing/Menacing is fundamentally a threat display, negotiation tactic— that also happens to be illegal. A distinguishing difference between this and robbery (or kidnapping) is brandishing usually occurs in the middle of an altercation. There is usually conflict, build up and instructions to avoid before the weapon is drawn and displayed. This is repeated when the blade is drawn.

Like other kinds of threat display, brandishing can be based in either ‘do what I want or I will hurt you’ or  ‘I’m too dangerous to attack.’ While either type can result in the blade being used, both require closing distance. If the draw and deployment occurred outside of knife range, somebody has to move into range for there to be wounding.

The question is: Did the aggressor (using it in the first method) close the distance to enforce his demands when he perceived the desired reaction didn’t occur fast enough? Or perceiving this, did the aggressor attack in rage? Or did an aggressor unexpectedly encountering a knife, close the distance to show the defender his (the defender’s) knife didn’t scare him (the aggressor)? Or did it turn into a fear attack by the defender?  All four will result in knife wounds.  

A fifth option is the knife is drawn and deployed with intent to brandish, but is done inside attack range. Due to ‘compression’ and proximity, this attempt to ‘scare someone away’ often backfires in various ways. In these sorts of situations, the question inevitably comes up: Why didn’t he flee when under threat? Simply stated fleeing is only a realistic option when

1) the range is great enough

2) when the person fleeing is in better physical condition than the potential attacker. Failing either or both criteria, turning one’s back at close range is a high stakes gamble for being attacked from behind.

Defensive uses of blades tend to have four common elements. First, even though only one side typically has a knife, there must be immediate threat of death or grievous bodily injury by the other person’s actions to warrant the blade’s use. More often than not that danger comes from other means than a knife (e.g., clubs, guns, improvised weapons or conditional disparity of force). As stated earlier, knife to knife is exceptionally rare, but that doesn’t mean other dangers don’t exist.

Second, typically, once the threat stops the defender stops his actions. This tends to cause a limited number of wounds as when the initial attacker stops and breaks off, the defensive action stops as well.

Third, except in specific circumstances, wounds are to the front of the attacker (that the knifer was defending against).

Fourth, defensive wounds on the attacker tend to be non-existent or minimal. In essence while attacking, very little attention is paid to defense and arms are not used as shields. Often what could be described as ‘defensive wounds’ line up with other wounds (e.g., a cut to the arm that aligns with a cut to the chest from the same slash).

As a subpoint of #2, defense stops when threat stops, the amount of damage an attacker takes is often dependant on his or her commitment to attack. A committed — usually intoxicated —attacker can often take multiple fatal wounds and continue attacking before being overcome by those wounds. Again, usually on the front.

Fear can be considered a catch all category. It can be viewed as a third subset of brandishing gone wrong, sheer panic, or a defensive action that turns into a frenzy.

Under the combination of fear and adrenaline,  the individual—to use layman’s terms— ‘freaks out’ and starts attacking or leaves defensive action moving into excessive force. This flavor of knife use tends to create yet another pattern of wild, untargeted, multiple wounds. These wound pattern are indistinguishable from a rage or FMA attacks.

Fear knife use is also the basis of someone chasing a person down the street and slashing at the other’s, back, then later claiming ‘self-defense.’  Due to adrenal stress, fear and continued proximity the person honestly — although not reasonably — believes the other person is still a threat.



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