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Wednesday 29 January 2020
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Fix forensics process

Photo courtesy Pixabay
Photo courtesy Pixabay

The admission by Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith that ballistics testing on weapons fired in a May shooting incident, at Carenage, that killed 14 year-old Naomi Nelson could take up to six years is simply unacceptable.

Griffith wouldn’t make that statement without a plan to urge corrective measures, given his ambition since taking office to improve the police service.

Ballistics testing is outside the scope of the service for good reason, because testing against police guns is sometimes a critical element in court cases. Ballistics testing is usually done by using two key methods. Examining the fingerprints of a gun by analysing the striations left by the rifling, a spiral groove in the barrel of a gun that spins the bullet to increase accuracy, and testing spent shell casings for marks left by the firing pin. The ejector mechanism in both fully automatic and semi-automatic guns also leaves identifying marks. Evidence is compared with an exemplar produced by an investigator by discharging the suspect weapon on a controlled range into a target that safely captures the spent bullet.

Unlike the certainty offered by convenient movie and television plots, ballistic forensics remains an inexact science, complicated by the challenges of recovering a bullet from a crime scene from which the rifling can be properly and reliably read. Even with these complications and caveats, the international standard for the turnaround of ballistics testing in a properly equipped lab ranged from hours to weeks in labs where there is a heavy case load.

In 2010, a survey of 50 US states of forensic testing across a range of disciplines found that ballistics testing averaged 136 days across 34 laboratories that responded.

By any measure, a six-year lag from receipt of evidence to reporting results points to dangerous levels of under-staffing.

Forensic testing remains one of the most vexing aspects of the criminal investigation process and a timeline of half a decade to verify ballistics markings is unfair to everyone involved in what are likely to be emotional cases. In October 2018, Minister of National Security Stuart Young promised action on the problem, announcing that the government had received $10 million in free funding from China for the first phase of a new state-of-the-art DNA and forensic science centre to be built at Mt Hope. A new forensic pathologist, Dr Somu Sekhar Hajula was appointed as a temporary replacement for Dr Valery Alexandrov in March 2019, but the centre requires significantly more staff to meet the demand for its services.

More needs to be done and the National Security Minister needs to back his promises with action.

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