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Record them - Government urged to use technology to counter flip-flopping witnesses

Published:Monday | October 24, 2016 | 12:12 AMRomario Scott

A former law-enforcement officer and a prominent player in the local legal system have thrown their support behind the idea of Government giving serious consideration to the use of digital technology to facilitate video recordings of witness statements to be used in court as evidence during criminal proceedings.

In the United Kingdom, Section 119 of the Criminal Justice Act allows for a previous statement of a witness, who later recants his testimony, to be submitted into evidence. This as witnesses sometimes lie or get intimidated into changing their initial statement to the police.

Former Deputy Commissioner of Police Mark Shields and attorney-at-law K.D. Knight believe that there is room for consideration of the establishment of similar provisions in Jamaican law.

Shields is of the view that, at the very least, significant witnesses, such as eyewitnesses, vulnerable witnesses and suspects, should have their interviews and statements video-recorded.

He said the Government should look at introducing dedicated interview suites to achieve this.

"We could have one at each division and, if we cannot afford it, we could have one at each area across the country. We would have one at the Centre for the Investigation of Sexual Offences and Child Abuse, so for every single sexual offence investigation, every victim or witness gets interviewed under those circumstances," he argued.

Shields said it would eliminate doubt from the minds of the jury as to the veracity of the information or claim provided by a witness or complainant.

"How many times have you heard at court that a witness has disputed the statement they had made to the police prior and we are left to wonder whether it was police corruption or that the witness has been intimidated or brought off to change his or her statement?"

According to Shields, the suite would be equipped with multiple cameras set at different angles to mitigate against any witness or suspect intimidation.

Knight, a former minister of national security and justice, likes the idea.

He said the proposal should be considered, even while admitting that the total operation would need "deep consideration" to protect the integrity of the criminal justice system.

"It sounds quite innovative, but before one comes to a decision on it, one would have to give it deeper thought," he said, adding, "My preliminary inclination is to support it."

Knight, who is also an opposition senator, told The Gleaner that one of the difficulties that would need to be overcome is the handling of the technology and what is produced.

He said there would have to be a way in which defence counsel, the court and other interests in a particular case could access and use the produce.

But Shields explained that there would be three copies of the recording.

There would be a working copy for the police, a master copy for the court, and a copy for witnesses or suspects.

"The master copy would be sealed into an exhibit bag and that is for the court. It would mean that, even if the suspect, the witness or the police interfere with the recording, there would have been a master copy which the court can rely on," he further explained.

Shields, a British national who served as a deputy commissioner of police while on secondment from Scotland Yard, said the interview suites are relatively inexpensive, costing in the range of "thousands of US dollars and not tens of thousands of US dollars per interview suite".

But Knight pointed out that there would also be the need for some technology in courts. He also argued that the video recording would have to be accompanied by a transcript.

Shields told The Gleaner he has refused to believe that there cannot be a way to get the ball rolling in implementing some of interview facilities because the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom have donated millions of dollars to help improve the efficiency of the police and the justice system.