How mind games help gardai unlock secrets frozen in time
Unravelling murder mysteries is nothing like 'CSI' on the TV
Published 31/10/2011 | 05:00
THE officer leading the garda's cold-case unit has revealed its most potent weapon in cracking unsolved murders.
In television land, 'CSI' teams unravel the mystery by using forensic techniques to uncover valuable new evidence in the most unlikely place and the case is all wrapped up within an hour. But the reality for cold-case investigators is a little bit different, a lot more time consuming and labour intensive.
Forensic developments can often play a key role in helping to secure the prosecution of the prime suspect. But the most useful tool in the armoury of the cold-case investigators is the mind of the previously reluctant witness.
"If we unlock the mindset of that witness, we can often unearth new information that opens up a brand new line of inquiry," said Detective Superintendent Christy Mangan, who heads up the nine-strong garda Serious Crime Review Team.
"Much of what we find out comes from people who, for various reasons, have not told the full story in the past and they can provide us with insights that were not available earlier.
"It is often information that has been playing on their minds for some time and they feel the need to tell it to another person.
"They can often have a conscience about keeping it secret, and if we can unlock that secret we can look at the case in a new light and possibly make significant progress," he explained.
Unlocked secrets brought a major success for the cold-case team when Veronica McGrath broke down and told gardai how her mother, Vera, and her own partner, Colin Pinder, had killed her father, Brian, at the family home in Coole, Co Westmeath, in 1987. The remains were then burned, and buried.
By 1993, Vera's daughter Veronica, who witnessed her father's murder, had split from Pinder.
Following coercion from people in whom she confided about her father's murder, she went to gardai and told them what had happened.
Fragments of bone recovered at the time could not be confirmed as those of the dead man, so there was no prosecution.
However, when the cold-case team was established in 2007, a member of the original investigation team told the unit about her claims. The land was dug up and remains uncovered, which were revealed by DNA tests to be her father's. Vera McGrath was subsequently convicted of murder and Pinder of manslaughter, with the help of her evidence as chief prosecution witness.
Veronica said later: "The years of fear, nightmares and regret at never having been able to get my da the justice he deserved were a thing of the past and, although I had now lost a mother, I realised that, in fact, I had never really had her."
The garda cold-case team was set up in September 2007 and, to date, has handled more than 30 murders.
The team works on a maximum of six cases at a time, with members appointed to oversee the implementation of recommendations they had made previously.
The officers are currently working on unsolved murders that date back mainly to the 1980s and early 1990s, and the files on more recent gangland crimes like the gangland murders of Marlo Hyland and Eamon Dunne have not yet come across their desks because they are too recent. But, if they remain unsolved, the cold-case team will eventually take a look at them.
The detectives begin by carrying out a preliminary review of the unsolved crimes, including those where, perhaps, only one person has been convicted, but three or four other suspects were not charged, and others, might be involved on the periphery.
The preliminary findings determine whether there should be a full review, taking into account the huge advances in forensic techniques over the past couple of decades and the availability of new information or witnesses.
Fresh examinations of old exhibits could produce new DNA evidence.
But the mental state of the culprit presents the most likely hope of a break in a case. Even the strongest of criminals, according to Det Supt Mangan, can suffer mentally from being involved in a murder and tries to find relief by talking.
They may confide in a close family member and confess what they have done because it sets them free from their "secret".
Those trusted with the information at the time might have felt unable to disclose it to the gardai, possibly through fear or lack of maturity.
But with the passage of time, the person exercising control over them may have moved away or no longer possess a position of influence. And that opens up a new avenue for the cold-case officers.