18 October 2009

Nigeria: Unsolved Murders - Forensic Evidence, the Missing Key

Lagos — LAGOS State Ministry of Justice and the office of the Chief Medical Examiner, held a forensic workshop on crime scene management recently in Ikeja, Lagos.

The event attracted police officers, judges/magistrates, coroners, lawyers, forensic pathologists, other forensic and anatomy pathologists in Nigeria and United States of America.

Delivering his lecture tagged, "the Nigeria police force and forensic evidence", at the forum, Mr. Yomi Onashile, a Commissioner of police, Abuja, said, forensic science embraces virtually all branches of science.

The police chief defined forensic science as the method used in the detection and prosecution of crimes or as the application of scientific skills of examination and evaluation to the resolution of social and legal issues.

He said the guiding principle in forensic science as postulated by Edmond Locard, an authority in the field, is that every contact leaves a trace; these traces are usually the physical evidence collected from a scene of crime for onward transmission to the laboratory for scientific examinations.

Speaking further, Onashile said, since crime scenes are unique, a victim of crime is also a crime scene. He added that investigators are expected to approach crime scenes as if these will be their only opportunity to recover all the available physical evidence.

He pointed out that the physical evidence has potential to play a critical role in the overall investigations and resolution of a suspected criminal act.

The result of the scientific examination usually links the suspect(s), the victim and the crime scene together, thereby making the identification of the suspects possible with or without eye-witnesses.

In his opinion, the most reliable means of identification of a suspect or individuals is through the evidence of fingerprints.

"To the best of my knowledge, very few Nigeria police criminal investigation sections as at today take fingerprints of arrestees anymore for so many man-made reasons", said he.

Unfortunately, this has resulted in their inability to detect most of the crimes being committed in the country.

Most crimes are committed by repeat-offenders, who are supposed to have their fingerprints stored in the police Central Criminal Registry or call it data bank.

"The ability to detect a crime, to a large extent, indirectly prevents the commission of the crime, because nobody wants to go into a crime that could easily be detected.

"People are still being assassinated or murdered because of our inability to detect those behind the ones that have already occurred."

If no fingerprints are being taken, Onashile argued, it is automatically meant that the police records are useless and many criminals will escape detection because names and faces change everyday;

Recounting previous incidences, Onashile stated the case of a former governor, who was alleged to be an ex-convict readily comes to mind, because of the assumption by the Nigeria prison services, that the police already have the fingerprints of convicted criminals, they too never bordered to have records of fingerprints of criminals sentenced to prison.

"I also strongly believe that Chief Bola Ige's assassination would have been solved if the police lifted all the fingerprints in Chief Ige's room and also carried out some scientific examinations on the expended ammunition recovered from the scene".

Any fingerprints found that do not belong to a member of his household could have been cross-checked with those of the suspects, he said.

Also, examinations carried out by the ballistics section on expended ammunition should have made it possible to identify the type of fire-arm used and ultimately the crime fire-arm if found during the conduct of searches.

"Unfortunately for us in this country, the requisite equipment and the expertise were not available, it was indeed, a pity", he stressed.

Crime buster also pointed out that if the fingerprint, ballistics and biology (DNA profiling) sections of the Nigeria Police Forensic Science Laboratory could be developed to world-class standards, cases of violent crimes will be reduced because perpetrators of the crime would easily be arrested.

"I also strongly believe that Engr. Funsho Williams, case would have probably been solved if the police could carry out DNA profiling.

According to him, taking fingerprints of arrestees and storing them after conviction are statutory requirements which as at today, have been ignored to a large extent at our own peril.

When a former president accused the Nigeria Police Force of habouring criminals, the police authorities' decided to screen men and women already serving in the force by taking their fingerprints, this should have been done at the recruitment stage, he noted.

"If we are not careful, a situation where criminals in uniform run a police station will arise," he cautioned.

Recruiting men and women into the Nigeria Police Force should always be through a competitive examination and those finally selected should have their background thoroughly scrutinised including taking their fingerprints and cross-checking them with the fingerprints stored in an up-to-date Criminal Registry, which serves as a data bank.

He called on the government to provide adequate fund that will enable the training and retraining of police officers to adopt modern systems of combating crime in the country, which prides itself as an African giant.

"As at today, to the best of my knowledge, the Nigeria police do not have anybody that could be rightly called a fingerprints expert, the old hands with little or no science background and adequate training are still in charge," he pointed out.

He also said fingerprints technology has advanced so much that it could be developed on the human skin, clothing, porous surfaces, ammunition, fire-arms and so forth.

Most car snatchers, kidnappers and armed robbers, leave their fingerprints all over the place including hi-jacked vehicles, bullion vans, and so on.

Yet nobody cares to lift these fingerprints for comparison and identification purpose, he noted.

"It pains me when criminals escape detection due to the un-professionalism in the Nigeria Police Force," Onashile declared. "To say that a crime committed is a mystery, cannot be solved or should be left in the hands of God, who had given us wisdom with which we can solve our problems, is to admit incapability."

He advised detectives to always remember that the perpetrator of a crime would always leave some traces of his presence because every contact leaves a trace.

According to him, it is very unfortunate and unbelievable that most of our police officers still believe (even though we are now in the 21st century), that a confession is a stronger piece of evidence.

Therefore when a crime is committed, they believe that the only way to detect it is by extracting a confession, which in most cases is denied when the matter gets to court.

It is believed that confession may be obtained by security agents from a criminal suspect under duress or by application of force. This situation is common in the country, where police officers torture suspects to obtain information.

But when fingerprints evidence is tendered in court, Onashile argued, nobody can fault it, once somebody's fingerprints are found at a place; the person's presence in that particular place is confirmed.

To buttress this point, he said no two people, even identical twins, have the same finger prints. The probability of two people having the same finger prints is one in 10,000 billion.

Looking at the case of violent crimes that involve shooting, he said, the easiest way to resolve them is the use of an Automated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS) which should be available in any standard forensic science laboratory ballistics section.

Shooting cases are being investigated as at today without appreciable assistance from the ballistics section of a forensic laboratory, he noted.

Explaining this, he said, all that is being done is the sending of suspect guns or firearms to the ballistics for examination, identification and classification.

In cases where the suspect guns are not found, investigators belief is that there is nothing the ballistics section could do to assist them in their investigations.

But this belief, according to Onashile, is wrong and disheartening. He noted that just as fingerprints impressions found at a scene of crime could lead the detectives to the perpetrators of the crime, so also can the bullets/empty shells found at the scene of a shooting incident lead investigators to the gun used in the shooting.

In shooting cases, he emphasised, bullets or empty shells found at the crime scene or its immediate environ should be forwarded to the ballistician with or without the suspect gun, the empty shells/bullets can then be classified and stored away.

"With the advent of IBIS, the mark left on the empty shells/bullets can be stored in the computerized system for the purpose of comparison".

With marks left on empty shells/bullets produced by suspected guns or firearms recovered from prominent Nigerians, including a Deputy Governor, could have been used in carrying out assassinations of some prominent citizens or in the carrying out of some armed robberies or kidnapping instead of charging them for unlawful possession, they could be charged for murder, armed robbery and kidnapping after the scientific examinations were carried out on these guns", Onashile posited.

The application of the knowledge of science and technology to police operations, all over the world, has made criminal investigations and prosecution less tedious, he noted.

Criminals now know that there is nothing like a perfect crime. Because it is now possible to link a criminal with a scene of crime through the DNA collected from the saliva left on a cup of tea, sweat on a hat or saliva on a postage stamp.

Speaking further, he stated that crime investigation has become part and parcel of forensic science and therefore it is very important that awareness should be created among investigators and prosecutors as to the available assistance of forensic science laboratory or a crime laboratory.

For the crime laboratory to be of assistance, he said, an investigator must know how to identify and collect physical evidence (exhibit), which after packaging, can be forwarded to the laboratory for necessary analysis and report.

No amount of equipment and expertise will salvage any problems that develop if the collection and forwarding of the exhibit have not been properly done.

For an investigation to succeed, the investigator must ensure that potential physical evidence is not tainted or destroyed or potential witnesses overlooked, things must be done right, the commissioner advised.

He also called on judges to base their judgments, especially in criminal cases, on well informed expert findings, which are more reliable than an eye witness account and confessional statements"

In USA, there had been cases in which convicted sex offenders were later exonerated by the use of DNA evidence -convicted by courts, exonerated by science, he said.

Since judges decide who is an expert, it becomes pertinent that judges should have an idea of what forensic science is all about.

According to him, these will definitely bridge the gaps that currently exist between judges, lawyers forensic scientists, who are in short supply in the country, adding that forensic evidence should serve as a supportive tool in the quest for justice.

On his part, executive secretary, Lagos state Security Trust fund, Mr. Fola Arthur- Worrey, regretted that, as big as the country is, it has only one forensic laboratory, which he said was in Oshodi Lagos.

Despite being the only one, it has no modern infrastructures, unmotivated staffs; "in fact the library is an eye sore", he said.

He also said the Nigeria police are keyed to securing the lives of prominent personalities as well as the common man.

This reporter recalled a long list of Nigerians, who were at one time or the other, assassinated but without the police gotten to a favourable conclusion on them.

Chief Harry Marshal, the then National Deputy Chairman of Peoples Democratic Party, Chief Kudirat Abiola, wife of Moshood Abiola, Dr. Abayomi Daramola, Dele Giwa, former Managing Editor/Editor-in-Chief, Newswatch Magazine, Godwin Agbroko, a one-time editorial board chairman of ThisDay, Abayomi Ogundeji , also of ThisDay, Fred Agbeyegbe, Pa Alfred Rewane and a host of others, are a few examples.

Since they were killed up till today, there were no concrete findings from the police that could give wide public acceptability on their cases.

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