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Experts: unidentified murder victims pose challenge for police, prosecutors

Steve Mertl
Canadian Press

Saturday, March 04, 2006

VANCOUVER (CP) - A body with no name, a name with no body and sometimes neither name nor body, only a suspicion of foul play.

The legal challenges of bringing a killer to justice jump exponentially when any of these factors figure into a murder case.

Artist's sketch show accused serial killer Robert Pickton taking notes during the second day of his trial in B.C. Supreme Court in New Westminster, B.C., January 2006. (CP/Jane Wolsack)

A judge this week quashed one of the 27 first-degree murder charges against accused serial killer Robert Pickton - the so-called Jane Doe count - ruling the charge didn't meet the minimum Criminal Code requirement for spelling out details of the offence.

Legal experts say the ruling underscores the challenges police and prosecutors face when they believe someone's been murdered but the victim is unidentified, it's not clear when they were killed or there's no body at all.

But while the obstacles are daunting, they're not impossible to overcome if there's other credible evidence linking a victim to a suspect.

"I don't think there's an insurmountable problem," says Prof. Alan Young of York University's Osgoode Hall law school in Toronto.

"But when you're not clear on the identity of your victim you lose a lot of context and background evidence that may help."

Circumstantial cases are about building inferences upon inferences, says Young.

"To me it's not the kiss of death that you only have an unnamed anonymous victim," he says.

"But it does make things more difficult forensically and strategically for the government because if you don't know who the victim, is you can't lead evidence of their whereabouts in and about the time of the homicide."

Prosecutions involving so-called John Doe or Jane Doe murder victims are extremely rare.

Advances in forensic science have helped investigators put names to more victims.

"Probably DNA, from my opinion, is the biggest single forensic improvement in a century," says Bruce Brown, an RCMP major crimes investigator for 30 years before becoming deputy B.C. police complaints commissioner.

"We used to have to rely on dental records. That wasn't always the best way when perhaps you had people who didn't have dental work or didn't take care of their teeth or didn't have a dentist."

Such victims often ended up in the cold case files and still do when DNA fails to take investigators out of their dead end.

Identity is a huge piece of the puzzle, says Brown.

"Often what happens is you don't know where to start," he says. "You don't have any crime scene. You can't trace their last movements because you don't know who the heck they are."

The vast majority of killings are committed by people who know their victims, says criminologist Neil Boyd of Simon Fraser University.

"So when police go into a crime scene, they start looking for the most familiar people just as a matter of probability," says Boyd, who chronicled the Canadian way of murder in his book The Last Dance.

"If you don't know who the person is you don't know where to look."

Many John or Jane Does are people who've fallen off society's grid, losing touch with friends, relatives and work colleagues. If they're not missed, another crucial link to identifying them through relatives' DNA is cut.

"DNA now does make a lack of identification much less likely but there are lots of people still for whom DNA does not exist," says Boyd.

"Then you can only look to what the forensic evidence tells you about how they've been killed, where they've been killed, whether there are known offenders in the area because most people tend to commit crimes relatively close to home."

But Boyd points out only one-third of murderers have a previous criminal history, let alone a record of homicide, "so it's very tricky."

Serial crimes can be different, the experts say.

Patterns of evidence or facts that suggest similar acts can be powerful tools in the hands of prosecutors, not just in murders but in beatings, sexual assaults or robberies where victims are unknown or unwilling to come forward.

"They have a series of incidences which display a striking similarity or a very replicating modus operandi," says Young. "They will use one incidence as part of the circumstantial proof of the case before the court."

Similar-fact evidence often turns up in pedophile cases and other types of predatory crime, he says.

"When they see the pattern it's very hard for a jury to believe it's just coincidence that three extremely similar incidences all happened that you have some tangential connection to," says Young.

But former Crown prosecutor Don Morrison says courts don't always accept similarities as proof of guilt.

"I used a lot of similar act on a serial arsonist and the end result was the Court of Appeal kicked back five counts," he recalls.

 The Canadian Press 2006

 

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Updated: August 21, 2016