Questions raised over RCMP’s DNA ‘dragnet’ technique in Marrisa Shen investigation
More than two months after the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team (IHIT) announced charges had been laid in connection to one of the province’s most high-profile homicide cases—the 2017 the murder of 13-year-old Marrisa Shen in Burnaby’s Central Park—questions are being raised surrounding the investigative process that led to the case’s prime suspect.
Multiple men of Middle Eastern descent, who had previously immigrated to the Lower Mainland, confirm they were asked to provide DNA samples to investigators in the months leading up to the arrest of Ibrahim Ali, 28.
“At the beginning, the first question they asked me was, ‘do you know [Marrisa Shen]?,’” said Hammid Bahrami, an Iraqi immigrant who says he was among those asked to provide DNA in relation to the case. “They said, ‘Do you know what DNA is?’ I paused for a second, and then I said, ‘Okay, sure.’ To be cooperative with them. So, I didn’t hesitate to give my DNA.”
Bahrami told Global News he has since heard similar stories from dozens of members of the local Kurdish community—who were likely asked for samples because they share similar markers to Ali, a Syrian national who came to Canada as a refugee in the months before Shen’s death.
Global News has spoken to several other men who share similar experiences. In each case, they provided DNA with consent, but some men felt they had no choice but to provide it—and that’s cause for concern for civil liberties advocates.
“Particularly when people may be newcomers to Canada, and they come to countries where they’ve experienced oppression at the hands of police or the state, those people may be particularly vulnerable when they’re confronted by state agents like the police asking them to do things,” explained Josh Paterson of the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA).
“They may not be aware that they have a right to refuse. Even if they know they have a right to refuse, they may be afraid of reprisals against them by police if they don’t cooperate.”
Coverage of the Marrisa Shen investigation on Globalnews.ca
Experts in the field of forensic DNA evidence like Steen Hartsen, a professor at BCIT, says the so-called “dragnet” technique isn’t unheard of—but it isn’t commonly deployed to target specific ethnicities or demographics in unsolved cases.
“There is a lot of justification for using that sort of searching in certain circumstances,” Hartsen explained. “If they’d done some sort of ancestral DNA testing, they can potentially find some indication of probable ancestral groups that people could belong to. And that probably informs their search, in terms of where they decide to search, and what ethnicity they’re going to focus their investigation on. And that might justify why they’d target a specific group.”
The Integrated Homicide Investigation Team—which was notably tight-lipped about the investigative process when they announced first-degree murder charges had been laid against Ali on Sept. 10, declined to comment on the matter, as the case is before the courts.
But Bahrami says those that were targeted for DNA samples in the sweeping investigation, roughly between March and September of this year, are feeling unsettled.
“Everybody I’m talking to, they’re not happy. Everybody is kind of sad and worried,” he said. “But, because this is a murder case, everybody is trying to be cooperative. And finally they’ve found out the person who [allegedly] did it, and he’s in custody. But people are in fear.”
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