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Forensic expert tells murder trial possible gunshot residue found on defendant’s sweatshirt

Supreme Court

A particle that could have been produced by gunfire was found by investigators in the pocket of a sweatshirt linked to a man accused of murder.

The Supreme Court heard from Tarah Helsel, an expert from Pennsylvania-based RJ Lee Group, that a “particle characteristic of gun shot residue” had been identified on a swab taken from a hooded sweatshirt.

She told the court the particle was “highly specific” to the discharge of a gun and contained three elements found in the primer of ammunition.

But Ms Helsel said that she could not confirm how or when the particle got on to the sweatshirt.

She explained that when a firearm was discharged, a “plume” of particles were released which could land on nearby objects or individuals.

Ms Helsel said that investigators looked for particles that contained lead, barium and antimony fused together to identify gunshot residue.

She said that she received ten GSR stubs related to the case, labelled as being from a hooded sweatshirt and a pair of jeans, on January 23, 2019.

Both items of clothing were given to police by the grandmother of defendant Taaj Muhammad after officers attended her home with a warrant.

Ms Helsel said that in addition to the single particle that contained all three elements, tests discovered 20 particles that contained two of the three elements.

She admitted she was not familiar with studies carried out in Bermuda, but that it was unusual to find three-component particles in the environment.

Ms Helsel said: “In general there has been studies regarding GSR in the public and it has been shown that the average person doesn’t have GSR on them. It’s not a high risk.”

Mr Muhammad, 26, from St George’s, has pleaded not guilty to the murder of Ronniko Burchall and a charge that he used a firearm to carry out the offence.

The court heard earlier that Mr Burchall, 30, was shot in the head at point-blank range as he left a Christmas party at St David’s County Cricket Club, just after 1.30am on December 29.

An autopsy report, read to the jury yesterday, confirmed that he had been killed by a single gunshot wound to the right forehead.

The report said that Mr Burchall had been put on a ventilator when he arrived at the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital, but it was decided that surgery would be futile because the injuries were “non survivable”.

Mr Burchall died the next day. Sergeant Jason Smith, the senior investigating officer, told the court that Mr Muhammad was interviewed and released by police on January 4, 2019.

Mr Smith told the court that he was contacted by a witness – a woman who cannot be identified for legal reasons – on July 8, 2020 and Mr Muhammad was arrested for the murder of Mr Burchall the next day.

The witness told the Supreme Court that he told her he had shot Mr Burchall and then swum from St David’s to St George’s.

Mr Smith said that officers investigated the details of the story – including the weather conditions on the night of the shooting.

Charles Richardson, defence counsel for Mr Muhammad, suggested that the Bermuda Weather Service had reported winds of 15mph on the night of the murder, but Mr Smith said he could not confirm if that was the case.

The trial, before Acting Puisne Judge Juan Wolffe, continues.

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