Forensics Training Helps to Combat Extrajudicial Killings in the Philippines

Exhuming a Shallow Grave: A participant uses a trowel and a paint brush to carefully remove dirt in layers from a hastily dug grave so that physical evidence can be identified and recorded

Exhuming a Shallow GraveA participant uses a trowel and a paint brush to carefully remove dirt in layers from a hastily dug grave so that physical evidence can be identified and recorded

August 2008 

In the Philippines, police and prosecutors rely almost exclusively on testimonial evidence, causing serious delays and dismissals of otherwise valid prosecutions due to witnesses being intimidated, bribed or difficult to find. This is a particular challenge in prosecuting extrajudicial killings cases. In an effort to encourage Filipino prosecutors to think critically about how physical evidence can be used to build stronger cases in court, Peruvian forensic anthropologist Dr. Jose Baraybar conducted a three-day forensics seminar for experienced prosecutors as part of the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) project to curb extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.

Prosecutors were taught how to enhance the courtroom value of physical evidence by properly recording a crime scene prior to removing anything, with Dr. Baraybar demonstrating how cheap, readily-available tools can be used to diagram a crime scene and to properly preserve evidence. Participating prosecutors were divided into teams and sent to mock crime scenes arranged on Clark Airbase in Pampanga to identify, record and preserve the physical evidence left behind. Each team was provided a low-tech forensics kit containing a disposable camera, graph paper, string, colored plastic tape, a drafting compass and a “plumb bob.” To make the training as realistic as possible, Dr. Baraybar and his associate filled dummies with straw and sacks of pig’s blood and then shot them to replicate blood splatter evidence. Makeshift huts were staged with shotgun shells and other pieces of evidence for prosecutor-trainees to document. 

One of the training scenes contained a shallow grave and three “bodies” that provided clues as to the status of the suspects. Some of the prosecutorial team members carefully examined the grave, while others used their recently-acquired skills to draw a three-dimensional diagram showing where the evidence was found in relation to the bodies. The prosecutors noted correctly that the marks on the side of the grave showed that it was made with a back-hoe; therefore, it is probable that the killers had access to significant resources and were not everyday bandits. This kind of information is critical in identifying murder suspects.

This practical forensics training is the first phase of an 18-month ABA ROLI program to address the problem of extrajudicial killings. In the coming months, the program will conduct seminars for prosecutors, public defenders, civil rights lawyers and non-governmental human rights workers on the role these stakeholders play in fighting extrajudicial killings. This program is supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.  

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