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The Negative Impact of Tampering with Evidence

Dana E. Brede

I would never have thought that my previous blog entries regarding Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, as well as the ill-fated Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 would somehow merge months later into a news story that is adding further tension and scrutiny to the regions in and around Russia. The international community’s attention is yet again drawn toward what Putin will say or do next.

On Thursday, July 17th another Malaysian Airlines Flight met with catastrophe as an alleged surface-to-air missile shot the plane out of the sky over pro-Russian separatist-controlled Ukraine. The Boeing 777 was carrying 298 people. Further, the causalities ranged from citizens from 11 different countries (each demanding a thorough investigation)1.

Despite finger pointing in many directions, no group or side has publically claimed responsibility for the down airliner. That being said—many signs are pointing to pro-Russian separatists that were supported with training and weaponry from Russia. Senior White House advisor, Ben Rhodes, said in an interview with CNN, “We are putting out evidence to confirm the points that not only has Russia been providing the weapons across the border, including heavy weapons, but they have also now been firing artillery barrages across the border2.” Russia continues to deny the allegations and blames Ukraine but evidence via satellite imagery and witness testimonies are stacking up against Russia. Secretary of State, John Kerry, said in a recent interview, “This is a fundamental moment of truth for Russia, for Mr. Putin.”

The investigation of the MH17 crash site was a critical facet to unravelling the evidence necessary to understanding the events leading up to the cause of the downed Boeing 777. For nearly ONE WEEK immediately following the crash, Ukrainian separatists (as well as a few media correspondents) combed the scene, removed evidence (including the black boxes and human remains) and, additionally, left the scene significantly altered and tampered with. It was a considerable amount of time later that the black boxes were handed over to international authorities. Moreover, Ukrainian separatists are still vehemently denying access to international investigators in a move that directly contradicts agreements to the contrary. This further proves that Putin has little control over the rebels.

Food for thought: If Russia or the Ukrainian separatists had nothing to hide—than WHY the need to comb the scene and remove evidence? The removal of evidence went far beyond tampering…

So far, international air crash investigators have been unable to properly deploy across the vast crash site in eastern Ukraine and collect evidence due to ongoing security concerns, including continued military activity. Despite calls from the UN for an immediate cessation of all military activities in and around the crash site3, the security concerns have prevented full and unfettered access to the site, making any attempt at an independent and proper investigation impossible.

According to Barry Fisher, an expert in crime scene investigations, crime scenes are dynamic, rapidly changing environments and the first to arrive on the scene must be concerned with a myriad of details4. Unfortunately, preserving the scene from contamination was not a concern for the first on scene to the MH17 crash site. If it is believed that to a great extent, the success of the investigation and, perhaps, the chance for a successful resolution of the case hinge on actions and steps taken by the first to arrive on scene5.

David Owen, author of the book Air Accident Investigation, said. “Even if fragments of a missile were retrieved [from the crash site], it would not be enough to establish responsibility because both sides [Ukraine and Russia] have access to this kind of equipment.” Responding to questions regarding the evidence on the ground Owen said, “Instant and secure access to a crash site is always ideal but I believe that if the crash was indeed caused by a missile, there will be enough evidence on the ground.”6

Discussion Question: Is it too little too late for an accurate and proper investigation in the case of MH17?

An investigation of this size is multifaceted and while the situation may seem bleak by outward appearances, given the lack of access to the scene, agencies throughout the U.S. and global intelligence community are collaborating to develop as complete a picture as possible of the events surrounding the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. Richard H. Ledgett Jr., the deputy director of the National Security Agency, was recently quoted as saying, “The community is working really hard to provide as much fidelity to the White House and the rest of the policy community as they can … and will continue to do that.” Further, when events like this occur, Ledgett reiterated, “the NSA—which is focused on signals intelligence—begins looking for communications or emanations from weapons systems”7.

Only time will tell how the international community responds as recent sanctions have done little to dissuade Russian aggression thus far.

Criminology students are taught to respect and secure crime and investigative scenes to ensure the integrity of an investigation. They are also taught how to understand, prevent and anticipate criminal behavior. While the management (or rather lack thereof) and handling of the investigation scene in Grabove for MH17 offers a glimpse of human behavior at a transnational level, students at Regis are in a prime position to serve at the next wave of change for local, state and international communities. Human behavior is something that students at Regis University have an opportunity to explore in more depth. Master’s criminology students have the option to choose from one of three focus areas: Leadership, Human Behavior and Cybercrime/Terrorism.

Which focus area calls to you?

For more information and/or suggestions for future blog post topics please contact Affiliate Professor Dana Brede at dbrede@regis.edu or request more information.

Work Cited:

1N. A. (July 25, 2014). MH17 Malaysia plane crash in Ukraine: What we know. BBC News. Retrieved on July 26, 2014 from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-28357880

2Pearson, M. and Walsh, N. (July 28, 2014). MH17 investigators ‘sick and tired of being delayed,’ official says. CNN World News. Retrieved on July 28, 2014 from http://www.cnn.com/2014/07/28/world/europe/ukraine-crisis/

3Malaysian Airlines Press Release. (July 27, 2014). MALAYSIA SECURES AGREEMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL POLICE DEPLOYMENT TO MH17 CRASH SITE. Retrieved on July 28th, 2014 from http://www.malaysiaairlines.com/mh17

4Fisher, B. (2004). Techniques of Crime Scene Investigation. CRC Press. New York. Page 28.

5Fisher, B. (2004). Techniques of Crime Scene Investigation. CRC Press. New York. Page 28.

6N. A. (July 22, 2014). MH17 crash: Challenges of forensic investigation. BBC News. Retrieved on July 28, 2014 from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-28424083

7Roulo, C. (July 26, 2014). Intel Community Assists Flight MH17 Investigation. DoD News. Defense Media Activity. Retrieved on July 28, 2014 from http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=122764