May 25, 2015 News
– here’s how he can
By Michael Jordan
My first close brush with murder happened when I was 18. Someone raped and strangled a 14-year-old girl named Ann Stewart and dumped her body in an alleyway not far from where I lived. They never caught her killer, although we Tucville boys believe that a guy who hung out with us had more than a passing knowledge about Ann Stewart’s fate.
Now, so many years later, unsolved cases like Ann Stewart’s seem to have become the rule rather than the exception. The stack keeps piling up, year after year, and the new Minister of Public Security, Mr. Khemraj Ramjatan, will have his hands full in strengthening the Force’s investigative capabilities, to reduce the number of cold cases. And for him to be successful, here are some areas in which he can start.
THE FORENSIC LAB AND DNA TESTING
He needs to find out what is going on in that ‘top secret,’ billion-dollar Forensic Laboratory at Turkeyen. This laboratory, which was commissioned almost a year ago, was supposed to “greatly enhance the investigative capabilities of the Guyana Police Force.” According to reports, it was supposed to have facilities for testing of blood and other samples taken from crime scenes; provide forensic toxicology testing (testing for poisons, drugs, etc), testing for possible counterfeit cash, and tests at scenes of fires for the presence of accelerants.
It would be interesting to find out if work at the lab has assisted the police in solving any crimes. Reports suggest that very little, if any, work at the lab is being done. There have also been several setbacks at the facility, including a fire and problems with the design of a section of the lab which has resulted in poor air circulation in the building.
But the Public Security Minister also needs to ensure that DNA testing— a major component of Forensics—-comes on stream locally. At present, police go through the costly and lengthy process of sending samples overseas. In recent times, DNA results have helped local police to identify murder victims, most notably, St. Stanislaus College teacher Nyozi Goodman, whose remains were found at Turkeyen last year. It was DNA testing that also helped police to positively identify the remains of businessman Mohamed F. Khan, which were found on a Cummings Lodge dam last September. DNA results are unique to every individual, and can link a suspect to a scene, or exonerate him.
Storage of Evidence
And that brings me to another area that Mr. Ramjattan really needs to look at: Storage of Evidence.
There have been numerous cases in the United States in which police have managed to solve decades-old crimes, which occurred before DNA testing, by later lifting DNA evidence from exhibits they have stored. This has also enabled them to exonerate men who languished in jails for years, prior to the discovery of DNA technology.
But local investigators would be challenged to find exhibits from old ‘cold cases,’ and sometimes, even from relatively recent ones. Police investigators acknowledged that crime scene exhibits are poorly labeled, and are stored in facilities which expose them to rodents and other vermin.
“In those CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) television series you would see large storerooms with exhibits labeled and stored on bookshelves. But here the exhibits are not properly protected from rodents and other pests. Also, exhibits are not arranged in a way that allows them to be easily produced,” one detective said.
That means that exhibits from Ann Stewart’s decades-old murder will most likely have been destroyed—if they were indeed ever stored. The late forensic pathologist Dr. Edward Simon once complained that detectives, apparently so sure that they had nabbed the right suspect, discarded DNA samples that he had taken from a case involving the murder of a Linden schoolgirl. The suspect was eventually freed, and there is now no evidence to establish if he had indeed committed the crime, or if there is a child-killer out there.
But detectives have also complained about the mysterious ‘misplacement’ of exhibits in recent cases. One investigator alluded to the recent Shaquille Grant murder trial, in which a detective was unable to account for the whereabouts of spent shells and swab samples collected during the investigation.
One of the positive moves by the previous Government was the acquisition of an Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS). This is a system in which fingerprints of suspects are placed in a database. Investigators can then quickly check and match fingerprints taken from a crime against those stored in the database. Police solved a number of murders and other offences within a few months of setting up this system.
Similarly, Minister Ramjattan could also push for acquisition of an Automated Ballistics Identification System (ABIS), which is a computer system, designed to store and quickly compare digital images of bullets and cartridge casings. At present, ballistics experts have to go through the sometimes tedious process of viewing casings and cartridges under a microscope to ascertain if they match those that are found at a crime scene.
Police Canine Division
Do you know that the Guyana Police Force once hired out one of its tracker dogs to help capture a dangerous Caribbean criminal? Have you ever heard of the famous dog, Rio that helped to solve many cases?
Do you know that another tracker dog once helped to solve the murder of an estate supervisor?
But that was decades ago. Now the Canine Division seems to be an almost forgotten arm of the Force, with only its drug-sniffing dogs being used at the Cheddi Jagan International Airport.
A vibrant Canine Division could have played a major role in several recent cases.
One of these cases involves the suspected murder of 11-year-old Nordex Wilkinson, who disappeared without trace on May 18, 2004, at Pattensen, Turkeyen. Tracker or cadaver dogs could also have helped detectives to locate Kwame Rumel Jobronewet, the 67-year-old US citizen who vanished in June, 2009. He reportedly disappeared in Buxton, after returning to Guyana to visit the home of his recently-deceased mother. There is also the case of 28-year-old Babita Sarjou, who seems to have literally vanished off the face of the earth on November 4, 2009, after leaving her workplace and informing friends that she was going to her estranged husband’s home in Kitty.
COLD CASE UNIT
Finally, Mr. Ramjattan could push for the establishment of a team of detectives, possibly including retired ranks, whose sole focus would be the solving of ‘cold cases’. The late Police Commissioner Laurie Lewis had raised this idea in the late nineties, with a suggestion that retired Homicide Division Head, Superintendant Michael Marks head the unit.
This idea was again suggested in 2009 by Commissioner of Police Seelall Persaud, who was at the time functioning in the capacity of Crime Chief.
According to the Crime Chief, a proposal to establish the unit has been stymied by the lack of adequate manpower.
This is in addition to the growing demands on the staff of the Criminal Investigations Department.
Despite the advancement of technology which can greatly assist in solving cold cases, the Guyana Police Force currently relies on paperwork which is stored in the best available way.
According to the Crime Chief, should such a unit become a reality, the Police Force will first have to look at the amount of unsolved cases, and then build a data base to facilitate proceeding with them. He pointed out that they will have to revisit evidence and re-interview available witnesses.
But while some may question the proper storage of evidence over a prolonged period, the Crime Chief pointed out that the police force has managed to store these to the best of its ability.
“Once exhibits are seized, they are lodged and stored in the best way possible. Spent shells and other murder weapons are some of these. In the case of perishable evidence, we photograph them and then dispose,” Persaud stated. He added that one problem facing the proposed initiative is the unavailability of witnesses, either through migration or death.
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