Cop’s acquittal in drug counsellor murder renews scrutiny of eyewitness testimony

The recent acquittal of the policeman accused of shooting a drug counsellor dead in 2011, owing to conflicting testimony during the High Court trial, has placed eyewitness testimony under scrutiny once more.

In the lower court, eyewitness Karen Busby-Girard had testified that the accused Sherwin Smith had shot Ralph Turpin at Stabroek Market. However, when the case went to trial last month, she admitted under cross-examination to seeing an “Indian woman” standing over the deceased with a gun in her hand.

It is unclear whether the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) plans to appeal the outcome of this case.

Ralph Turpin
Ralph Turpin

Sources close to the case say that from the beginning the identity of the shooter had been in question, as a number of people had said it was a female. One source explained that Smith was in the company of a senior police officer and his wife when the shooting occurred on September 15, 2011.

Based on the information provided to Stabroek News at that time, the trio had been out partying earlier when they decided to stop at Stabroek Market to buy food. It was claimed then that they all might have been intoxicated.

The source said that after hearing the initial report, he was shocked when the corporal was charged with murder. The source said that he has reason to question why Smith was charged as he felt the rank did not have “the disposition to shoot someone in those circumstances.” The source noted that there was a police outpost in the vicinity of where the shooting occurred and he felt that the most Smith would have done was “to rough up the man.”

The source pointed out that from the beginning there were several indications that something was not right and that there were attempts to “cover up” the identity of the real shooter. He said that it was established that the fatal shot came from a personal firearm owned by Smith, but what was never established was who pulled the trigger.

According to the source, there was another eyewitness, a female vendor, who was willing to testify but decided not to after realising that valuable income would have been lost if she had to be at court giving evidence. The source explained that the vendor was a single parent and because of the hassle involved in the entire process she decided not to participate. “She was willing to testify that she saw a woman fire the gun,’ the source said, adding that this is a ground for an internal probe to determine whether the investigation was properly conducted. He said that despite the amount of time that has passed, it might be worth the effort to try and locate this woman so that all the unanswered questions could be addressed.

Sherwin Smith
Sherwin Smith

He said that the unreliability of the main witness during the trial is another sore point that ought to be addressed.

Busby-Girard, who was a co-founder of Infinity Rehabilitation Centre along with Turpin, had told the media shortly after the shooting that her cousin had gone to buy the food and had apparently told the shooter to hurry up.

She recalled that she saw when the man shoved the woman and she fell. She said Turpin, who was sitting in the car, got out and berated the man for mistreating the woman.

Based on Busby-Girard’s account, this comment angered the man and he pulled out a gun and shot Turpin twice. He then turned to Busby-Girard and placed the weapon to her head. According to the distraught woman, she was also pushed. “Nothing escalated. This guy was just hasty,” she stated.

The source expressed the view that it was because of this that Smith was committed to stand trial in 2013.

During the trial, which began in November, defence attorney Glen Hanoman questioned Busby-Girard on another statement she had given to the police. Reading it out for the court, Hanoman said the witness reported that she saw an East Indian woman with a gun in her hand cursing Turpin, and when she had turned away she heard two gunshots ring out. The witness said that the woman was holding a silverish object which she identified as a gun.

Busby-Girard, when questioned about why she had not mentioned the “Indian woman” with the gun before, explained that she had feared for her safety if she mentioned the other possible shooter. “Is not that I am afraid to implicate her. I have been living like a fugitive since the incident happened. I have had to change numbers,” she told the court.

The police, in their official statement after the shooting, had implicated a male as the shooter. The statement said that Turpin, of Lot 25 Agriculture Road, Triumph, East Coast Demerara, was shot in the head around 3.30am at Cornhill Street, Stabroek, where he had gone to buy food.

According to police, a senior police officer and his wife went to purchase food at the Stabroek Market and there was an altercation involving females near the food stall.

It was alleged that during that altercation, a man chucked one of the females and the deceased went to make peace, during which he was allegedly shot in the head by the man, who also placed a gun to the head of one of the females.

He was later pronounced dead on arrival at the Georgetown Hospital, after sustaining a single gunshot wound to the head.

The source told Stabroek News that in light of the initial information and what was revealed in the High Court, it can reasonably be concluded that it was a woman who pulled the trigger.

He questioned whether there was an arrangement in place for Smith to take the blame because of the implications such an incident would have had for the senior police officer. Following the shooting, the senior police officer was transferred to Police Headquarters, Eve Leary.

The source said that another issue that boggles the mind is that during the preliminary inquiry Smith told the court that he reserved his defence for the High Court. From the beginning, he had professed his innocence. The source noted that had he said something back then, it could have impacted on the outcome of the preliminary trial in light of the development that took place. According to the source, there was insufficient evidence to require Smith to lead a defence during the trial and as such his side of the story remains unknown.

According to the source, eyewitness evidence can be “powerful testimony,” but it can also be unreliable. He said the mere fact that another person was brought into the picture was enough to free the accused as there was now a question of doubt.

The source said that one must take into account that a shooting occurs quickly. An eyewitness could see the weapon in someone’s hand but it does not necessarily mean that it was that person who fired the weapon. He explained that the gun could have been snatched from the shooter’s hand. In this case he said fingerprinting would not have necessarily helped to establish who fired the gun. “Indeed there could have been two sets of prints on that gun but how can you say who fired it, and more so in light of the fact that both persons had been identified as holding the murder weapon?” he questioned. He added that this happened fast, and often eyewitnesses get confused. He said that it is in these circumstances that police investigators must also look at additional physical evidence and seek out multiple persons who may have witnessed the crime. He said that this case had a number of flaws to do with how the investigation was handled.

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