N Touch
Thursday 22 August 2019
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Fix forensics

LAST WEEK, the Forensic Science Centre shut down because there was no air conditioning. What might seem to be a simple problem must be considered against a long history of resource shortages, maintenance failures and poor upkeep of an institution that plays a critical role in the analysis of evidence from crime scenes, most notably murders.

The history of these failings reaches back more than a decade and include some appalling lapses, some so severe that they may have tainted evidence in critical cases.

Police Complaints Authority head David West called for more resources for the centre in October 2018. Even internal investigations of the police are being stalled by the slow progress of evidence through the centre. He called for additional analysts and more forensic pathologists.

A year earlier, former National Security Minister Edmund Dillon acknowledged that he was not “fully satisfied” that the centre is adequately staffed.

After the departure of outspoken pathologist Dr Valery Alexandrov, who had little patience for decorum when calling out the failings of the centre during his tenure, the centre was operating with one pathologist. Dr Hughvon Des Vignes is supported by multiple attendants and Dr Eslyn McDonald-Burris performs autopsies under contract in Tobago.

On his resignation in November 2017, Alexandrov pointed out that the centre handles more than 1,000 autopsies a year, a number that calls for four forensic pathologists.

“I don’t understand the system they have in place at this time,” he said.

Efforts at repair and upgrade at the facility have proven to be ineffectual patchwork. Des Vignes had to order the removal of a new door to the operating theatre at the centre in October when he arrived to perform autopsies on five bodies and nobody could get it open. The Government has announced no plans for addressing the long-standing shortfalls in staffing either through external recruitment or, more compellingly, through incentives among local medical students to undertake the specialised training and residency required for the job.

National Security Minister Stuart Young promised a new state-of-the-art DNA and forensic science centre after the reading of the 2018-2019 national budget. It’s to be built with the support of $10 million in “free funding” from China. The new facility will be built at Mt Hope and the breaking of ground was supposed to happen soon after the budget’s reading with an estimated completion in 2020.

There has been no word since about this project, which, given its potential impact on the criminal justice system and cases in progress, should be more prominently on the Government’s agenda. The PCA director is only the most recent in a long line of people who want to see improvements at the centre.

It’s time that happened.

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