(São Paulo) – Two reports by international forensic experts point to possible destruction of crime scene evidence by police in the killing of nine people during a February 2019 operation in poor communities in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Human Rights Watch said today. The analysis by experts commissioned bv Human Rights Watch also points to other serious failures in collecting and preserving critical evidence in the case.
The reports, based on detailed independent analyses of the autopsy reports of 9 of the 13 people killed in the operation, suggest that military police may have taken bodies of people they had killed to the hospital, pretending they needed to move the victims to try to save their lives. For more than a decade, Human Rights Watch has documented similar cases of “false rescues” in Rio de Janeiro in which the police use this ruse to destroy crime scene evidence and hamper investigations.
The Toll of Unchecked Police Violence in Rio de Janeiro
“Rio de Janeiro state authorities need to stop the practice of ‘false rescues’ by requiring the police to summon medical services, as a general rule, to take police shooting victims to hospitals, and by punishing officers who purposely destroy crime scene evidence,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch sent the two reports by the international forensic experts to state prosecutors on February 3, 2020. Altering or destroying evidence, if proven, constitutes the crime of procedural fraud under Brazilian law, punishable with up to four years in prison.
On February 8, 2019, military police – who patrol Brazil’s streets – conducted an operation in the Fallet, Fogueteiro, and Prazeres neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro, killing 13 people. Military police officers said they opened fire after suspects shot at them. Police did not report any injuries to police officers.
Bullet holes in the wall and blood on the floor of a house in the Fallet neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro after police killed nine men there on February 8, 2019.
© 2019 Thatiana Gurgel, Rio de Janeiro Public Defender´s Office
Nine of the victims, 8 Black men and a 16-year-old Black boy, were killed in the same house by the Shock Battalion, an elite unit of Rio de Janeiro’s military police.
Human Rights Watch provided copies of the autopsies of the nine victims to the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) and the Foundation of Forensic Anthropology of Guatemala (Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala, FAFG), whose experts conducted pro bono analyses. Human Rights Watch was unable to obtain the autopsies in the other four killings, which civil police investigated separately.
While noting that the grossly substandard quality of the autopsies made it impossible to definitively conclude that all of the victims had died at the scene, IRCT’s experts from its Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) found that victims had multiple gunshot wounds and signs of severe trauma. The forensic experts reported that such injuries “may rapidly lead to death” and in one case they were so severe that “death was highly likely to be instantaneous.”
All nine victims had gunshot wounds piercing their lungs and eight had injuries to the heart, among others, the autopsies found. Military police officers told civil police investigators they had used rifles during the operation. Rifles are known to produce much more damage than handguns because of the higher velocity of the projectiles.
For instance, F.G.A., 21, had 3 close-range shots, 2 to his head and 1 to his body, and 4 shots to other parts of his body. His skull was fractured, his blood vessels in his neck destroyed, and his heart, lung, diaphragm, liver, stomach, and intestines were pierced with bullets, the autopsy showed. A video recorded in the hospital and a picture included in the police report showed him with his torso open and the intestines outside of his body.
Yet, military police officers told civil police investigators that he and the other eight victims were alive when they took them to the Souza Aguiar Municipal Hospital in an effort to save them. They were all dead upon arrival.
Military police officers sit with the feet on top of what appears to be the body of one or more of the victims killed by police in Rio de Janeiro on February 8, 2019.
© 2019 Photo courtesy of the Rio de Janeiro Public Defender´s Office.
The mother of one of the victims told the Public Defender’s Office that she saw a police pickup truck leave the house where the shooting took place with what she believed to be dead bodies in the back and police officers sitting on them. Her testimony seems to be corroborated by a video shot by a bystander and two pictures that show two police pick-up trucks with officers sitting in the back with the feet on top of what appear to be wrapped-up bodies.
A summary of the incident written by civil police and included in its investigation, which was obtained by Human Rights Watch, says that “the cadavers were taken to the Souza Aguiar Hospital.”
Yet, both military and civil police closed their investigations into the case in 2019 after concluding that there was no evidence the officers committed any crime. The Group of Specialized Action in Public Security (Grupo de Atuação Especializada em Segurança Pública, GAESP), a special prosecutorial unit that investigates police abuses, opened its own investigation and has yet to decide whether to file charges or to ask a judge to close the case.
Police investigators exonerated the military police officers based on seriously flawed investigations, Human Rights Watch said. The autopsy reports say that police did not request gunpowder residue analysis, which was crucial to check whether the victims had indeed opened fire against the officers, as the military police claimed. The autopsy reports also show that the pathologist did not examine the victims’ clothing, a key source of forensic information to understand the circumstances of the death.
The international forensic experts identified additional grave omissions and errors in the autopsy reports. The three IFEG experts concluded that the autopsies did not meet minimum professional and scientific standards due to their “absolute lack of quality.”
In statements to the Rio de Janeiro Bar Association and the Public Defender’s Office, the mother of one of the victims said that the young men in the house tried to surrender to the police and shouted for help before the police killed them. Relatives also accused the police of torturing the victims.
The international experts could not reach conclusions about the circumstances of the shooting and the possibility of torture due to the poor quality of the autopsies, which fail to provide “proper external examination and documentation of injuries,” the IFEG experts said. They pointed out that civil police had not followed investigation procedures that are the international standard in cases in which torture is alleged or death occurs during law enforcement operations.
“The families of those killed almost a year ago in the Fallet neighborhood have a right to know what really happened on that day,” Vivanco said. “State prosecutors should investigate any efforts to destroy evidence and, if warranted, press charges against those responsible, as well as ensure that the flagrant failures that were evident in the investigation in this case do not happen again.”
Human Rights Watch has documented “false rescues” for more than a decade in Rio de Janeiro. The police often claim they take people they have just shot to hospitals to try to save them – and they arrive dead. But military police in general do not take victims of traffic accidents to hospitals, and instead call medical emergency services, military police and the Rio de Janeiro Public Defender´s Office told Human Rights Watch.
That double standard indicates that the purpose of moving the bodies is to destroy evidence and to make investigations into killings by the police more difficult, the Public Defender´s Office told Human Rights Watch.
In São Paulo state, the public security secretary issued a resolution in 2013 and the military police commander issued an accompanying protocol that obligates police to call emergency services when encountering any seriously injured person, even if shot by the police. Police are only permitted to take the injured person to a hospital if there is no emergency service available or if the Military Police’s Operations Center (COPOM) gives authorization because the response time of the emergency services is deemed too long.
The public security secretary at the time said the resolution caused a 40 percent reduction in police killings in the first 3 months of 2013 in São Paulo. But the secretary has since left and enforcement of the resolution is failing, São Paulo Police Ombudsman Benedito Domingos Mariano told Human Rights Watch. Mariano said that the resolution, which also establishes the strict preservation of the crime scene, “is important” but it needs to be enforced.
The same pathologist from Rio de Janeiro civil police conducted all nine autopsies on February 9, 2019, the day after the shooting.
Human Rights Watch provided experts from the IFEG and an expert from FAFG with copies of the autopsy reports. The IFEG and FAFG conducted their analysis separately, but both concluded that the autopsies had been inadequate.
For instance, both reports say that gunpowder residue analysis was never conducted because civil police investigators did not request it. “The lack of this fundamental procedure is unacceptable and a strong limitation to securing conclusions,” the IFEG experts said.
The autopsy reports also say it was not of “forensic interest” to examine the victims’ clothing, which the international experts disputed. The IFEG experts said that preserving and analyzing clothing is particularly relevant to estimate shooting distance and other circumstances of death.
Several videos and a photo of the bodies, provided to Human Rights Watch by the Rio de Janeiro Public Defender´s Office, show the individuals’ clothing being removed at the hospital, where, the international forensic experts point out, they may become contaminated and evidence can be lost. Instead, the pathologist should have examined the bodies with the clothes on to carefully inspect for any traces of evidence, including gunshot residue in the clothing.
The autopsy reports do not include proper description of external and internal injuries, both groups of experts said. Furthermore, the little information the pathologist included was sometimes partial or even contradictory.
In the case of A.L.P.D., 38, the autopsy report mentioned a wound in the right ankle but provided no description. In the case of R.S.S., 18, the autopsy report first says the skull was not fractured and there was no internal bleeding in the temporal muscles, and later says the cause of death was shots to the skull, the pelvis – not described in the autopsy – and the back. And in the case of C.A.J.C., 26, the autopsy notes a wound in the right scapular region, but the diagram shows it in the left scapular region.
The international forensic experts also pointed out the very poor quality of the photographs of injuries, the lack of photographs of the bullets that were found in the bodies, and the failure to recover all projectiles or to X-ray the bodies to facilitate the recovery.
The Rio de Janeiro pathologist conducted 1 autopsy in just 10 minutes, and the other 8 between 30 and 40 minutes each, his reports say. That is insufficient time for adequate autopsies, especially complex ones that involve multiple traumatic lesions as in this case, both expert groups concluded separately.
The FAFG expert described the autopsies as “incomplete” and the IFEG experts said they were “far below the minimum acceptable standards” because of “multiple substantial and significant insufficiencies and deficiencies.” The IFEG experts added that the autopsies “represent a serious and flagrant violation of the lege artis [state of the art] of post-mortem examinations.”
International Standards for Autopsies
The international standard for conducting autopsies of killings by state agents or paramilitary groups is the United Nations Manual on the Effective Prevention of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions, known as the Minnesota Protocol. That protocol provides detailed guidelines on adequate photographs, X-rays, descriptions of external wounds and their trajectory, dissection of tissue, sampling of clothing and skin, and detection of firearm discharge residue on the hands of victims, among other necessary steps.
In May 2019, Human Rights Watch filed a freedom of information request asking for the protocol for conducting autopsies in Rio de Janeiro. The director of the Institute of Legal Medicine – an institution that is part of the civil police – said in July that it was still developing such a protocol. In December, Human Rights Watch requested the protocol again but the Institute simply responded that it conducts autopsies in accordance with Brazilian law.
The International Forensic Experts
Djordje Alempijevic, Duarte Nuno Vieira, and Antti Sajantila reviewed the autopsies on behalf of the IFEG, and José Mario Nájera Ochoa on behalf of FAFG.
Alempijevic, a professor at the University of Belgrade, has worked on exhumations in the former Yugoslavia, collected forensic evidence on torture in the Russian Federation that was submitted as evidence to the European Court of Human Rights, and has participated in numerous missions as a member of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture.
Sajantila, a professor at the University of Helsinki, was an adviser to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Peru, worked on the identification of Finnish M.I.A.s in World War II, and is the author of more than 200 scientific publications.
Vieira, a professor at the University of Coimbra and the University of Beira Interior, is chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and president of the Ibero-American Network of Forensic Medicine, and has published over 350 scientific papers and edited or co-edited 13 books.
Nájera Ochoa is an adviser to Guatemala’s Prosecutor’s Office and has provided forensic analysis in cases in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico, and before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
The IFEG is an international body of 39 preeminent independent forensic specialists who are recognized as global leaders in medico-legal investigation and provide technical assistance and expertise to many countries, regional and intergovernmental bodies, and civil society. The FAFG is a scientific nongovernmental organization that has recovered the remains of more than 8,000 victims of Guatemala’s civil war (1960 to 1996) and identified more than 3,000.
- GAESP, a special prosecutorial unit that investigates police abuses, should investigate any efforts to alter or destroy evidence in the Fallet case and, if warranted, press charges against those responsible. It should also examine the serious failures in the police investigation in this case and ensure they do not happen again by exercising effective oversight over civil police investigations of police killings. State prosecutors should respond to investigatory failures with institutional pressure, referrals to the internal affairs units of the police, and criminal prosecution in cases of malfeasance.
- The governor of Rio de Janeiro should issue a resolution that establishes that, as a general rule, medical services, not police, should take victims of police shootings to hospitals, with very limited exceptions when rescue by medical services is not feasible. The resolution should also call on police to coordinate with emergency medical services to make those services available prior to conducting operations in poor neighborhoods, which often result in police killings. In addition, the resolution should stipulate that clothing of victims must be preserved as evidence by police and medical personnel.
- The secretary of civil police of Rio de Janeiro should create a protocol for conducting autopsies in cases of killings by state agents or criminal groups with links to state agents, such as Rio’s so-called “militias,” that complies with the Minnesota Protocol. The Rio de Janeiro state government should provide adequate funding for the protocol to be put into practice.
- The civil police internal affairs department should open an investigation into the handling of the Fallet case, including the serious omissions and errors in the autopsies, and punish those responsible.