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Death on display

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Gunfire thundered through a South Valley neighborhood in the early morning darkness this week.

It was about 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, and the gunshots came just outside a 24-hour Allsup’s at Coors and Blake SW. When it was over, Kenneth Perez, 20, lay sprawled in the parking lot, dead.

A Bernalillo County sheriff’s spokesman said shots were fired after Perez was involved in an altercation.

For the next five hours, Perez’s body lay there, face up, uncovered and in plain sight of horrified passers-by as investigators with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office did their work – gathering evidence, taking photos, taking measurements, taking stock of the county’s fourth homicide of the year.

As the sun rose, the rate of traffic along Coors rose, too, including a yellow stream of school buses and morning diners at a nearby Sonic Drive-In.

Deputies had shut down Blake and cordoned off the parking lot in yellow crime-scene tape. They attempted to block the gruesome scene from public view by strategically circling the lot with department vehicles, including two RV-sized vans and several squad cars and SUVs.

It didn’t work.

TV camera crews set up for live shots and a Journal photographer captured images of Perez’s corpse from a weed-strewn berm along Blake. One of those photos was posted on the Journal website.

Some people complained.

“Have some respect for the dead,” one reader said in an email. “This photograph of someone’s family member, dead on the pavement, is terrible.”

Another reader had an even more salient concern – why was the corpse of a murder victim left out in the open uncovered where it could be seen by schoolchildren and motorists and people with cameras?

“As I understand, that was a large part of the outrage in Ferguson,” the reader wrote.

He referred, of course, to the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, Mo., by local police officer Darren Wilson. For four hours under the glare of a hot summer sun, Brown’s body lay facedown on a busy residential street, uncovered for a time and in full view of an apartment complex, homes and groups of neighbors with cellphone cameras who captured the image and posted it on social media, allowing millions across the world to view the body as well.

Leaving the teen’s body on the street helped fuel the anger that roiled through the city and elsewhere for days. It was disrespectful, city leaders said, not just to the dead young man and his family but to the traumatized community.

Brown’s body was eventually covered with a white sheet and, later, a blue tarp before it was taken away. At the Allsup’s in Bernalillo County’s South Valley, there had been no white sheet, no blue tarp.

So what happened here?

“Crime scene processing,” said Capt. Ray Chavez, who heads the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office’s criminal investigation division. “According to our crime scene procedures, we need to make sure everything is processed before we alter the body in any way or remove it from the scene.”

Even covering the body with a sheet can alter the crime scene, he said. Evidence can be transferred to the sheet – which is actually a thin blanket deputies keep in their vehicles – and items or fluids on the body can be jostled.

“Technically, we don’t touch the body,” Chavez said. “We don’t take anything from the pockets, don’t move anything. The state Office of the Medical Investigator has jurisdiction over the body and are the only ones who can remove the body once our investigation is completed.”

Chavez admits that efforts to conceal Perez’s body by using sheriff’s vehicles and blocking traffic fell short.

“Did we do a perfect job? I don’t believe so, if someone could get a picture of the body,” he said. “In hindsight, maybe we could have brought in buses to block the scene better, but it was critical that we did not contaminate the crime scene.”

Policing experts interviewed in a recent New York Times article said there is no standard for how long a body should remain at a crime scene but did agree that efforts should be made to obscure public view of the body while maintaining the integrity of the scene.

“In the old days, things got moved around, people went in and walked around the crime scene. Cases were subsequently unsolvable,” Chavez said. “People don’t always realize that we are doing the best we can to protect not just the scene and everybody’s rights.”

The dead are owed the respect of not having flesh and bone and blood turned into ghoulish or incendiary sideshows. But perhaps even more respect is shown through the thorough investigation that brings the killer to justice.

Detectives finished their investigation into the shooting death of Perez – a young man excited about becoming a father and going back to school – at Allsup’s about 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, Chavez said.

This Friday, three days later, sheriff’s deputies arrested two people in connection with his death.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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