Royal Marine Sergeant Alexander Wayne Blackman, named this week after the High Court stripped him of anonymity, was convicted of murder at Military Court Centre in Bulford on Friday 8 Nov 2013; two other marines were cleared. The Sergeant was today sentenced to life by a court martial, being told that he will spend at least 10 years in prison.
This landmark sentencing is the first time a member of the British forces has been convicted of murder in relation to the conflict in Afghanistan, which began in 2001 and that conviction was based on evidence provided by body worn video equipment.
One of the cleared marines inadvertently filmed the murder on his helmet-mounted camera, and that footage formed a critical part of the evidence shown to the court during the two-week trial.
Helmet cameras are increasingly used to film soldiers in operational zones in order to gather intelligence and review tactics techniques and procedures. In some cases, the video footage can be streamed back to a command center or military outpost. A recent notable instance of this was the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, where live video footage of the raid was streamed to the White House giving the US President, Barak Obama, and his staff the ability to monitor the tactical operation to secure the compound.
However, it is widely believed that many soldiers also use personal helmet cameras to record their activities for personal use. SecurityNewsDesk contacted a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence, who outlined the MoD policy regarding the use of body worn cameras.
They said, “The use of privately owned video cameras (hand-held and body mounted, including head-cams) is strictly prohibited, regardless of rank or role. Video cameras for official purposes will be issued through the chain of command with appropriate measures put in place to assure against unauthorised release of material.”
Body worn camera equipment can be mounted on a helmet, foot or elsewhere on the body to capture unique camera angles and footage, and as a result they are being used increasingly on mainstream television shows. Helmet cameras have been growing in popularity commercially, with sports enthusiasts using the devices to capture the action of their sport.
Despite today’s conviction being the first of its kind in the military world, legal precedent has been set for using evidence recorded by these cameras in other areas. For example, an increasing number of cyclists are wearing helmet cameras as a safety aid to record any incidents or accidents from as they happen. These recordings can then be submitted as evidence in court. As early as 2006, a British cyclist was convicted of abusing traffic wardens using evidence from a helmet camera.
Emergency services in the United Kingdom have also been putting the technology to good use along similar lines. As the military use body worn cameras to stream live footage to command centres, firefighters have begun to utilise helmet cameras as a tool to assess their responses to fires and allow non-firefighters to see the reality of what occurs inside a burning building.
The police view body worn video equipment as an overt method by which officers can obtain and secure evidence at the scene of incidents and crimes. This enables officers to comply with legislation and guidance to create evidence for use in court proceedings.
Sussex Police, for example, state in their policy concerning the use of body worn cameras as follows:
When used effectively Body Worn Video can promote public reassurance, capture best evidence, modify behaviour, prevent harm and deter people from committing crime and anti-social behaviour. Recordings will provide independent evidence that will improve the quality of prosecution cases and may reduce the reliance on victim evidence particularly those who may be vulnerable or reluctant to attend court.
Using recordings can also impact on the professionalism of the service and in the professional development of officers. Officers, trainers and supervisors can utilise the equipment to review and improve how incidents are dealt with.
What today’s sentencing of Sergeant Alexander Wayne Blackman, combined with increasing use of evidence gathered by body worn video devices, demonstrates is the need for focused assessment going forward of how best to utilise this technology. It is vital that these cases be used for lessons learned, training and accountability purposes, as has been highlighted by this conviction today.
This is technology that here to stay, and we are likely to see major developments in this field over the coming years. With this in mind, perhaps it is time for the legal system, our armed forces, and our emergency services to take a close look at the policies surrounding the use of this equipment and the footage it captures. What is clear here is that in this exceptional case body worn video evidence helps convict a member of the British Military of murder in Afghanistan.