Yesterday, news broke that a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, were found unresponsive on a park bench in Salisbury, England. News reports revealed Mr. Skripal and his daughter were suffering from exposure to an “unknown substance.”
According to an article in the Daily Mail today, “Two police officers who were among the first to come into contact with Mr Skripal and his daughter on Sunday were also admitted to hospital after suffering itchy eyes, rashes and wheezing on Sunday. Up to 10 other people suffered symptoms including vomiting.” One member of emergency services remains in the hospital as of this writing. Mr. Skripal and his daughter are both in critical condition. The substance remains unknown.
Of course, this instance immediately reminded me of the 2006 poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. Mr. Litvinenko’s tea was laced with a radioactive material known as polonium-210, causing sudden illness and hospitalization. He died approximately three weeks later. UK inquests have determined the Russian Federation was responsible for Litvinenko’s assassination.
From reading a bit about both of these matters, I begin to understand that Russia does not take kindly to turncoats. They are also very brazen in their efforts to eliminate enemies of the state.
Reading about the potential poisoning of Mr. Skripal got me thinking about the types of experts that would be used in the investigation and possible criminal or civil actions related to this assault.
HAZMAT & Emergency Services:
Images from multiple news stories show a HAZMAT response to decontaminate the area from exposure to the “unknown substance.” I am unfamiliar with different levels of hazardous material responses, but I imagine HAZMAT experts will be required to help investigators determine the type of substance based on their response. It appears the immediate area around the bench, first-responders, and a restaurant in Salisbury are all being decontaminated.
There is no evidence of a large-scale quarantine nor is an entire block cordoned off. So, it appears HAZMAT believes the chance for further exposure to the community is limited. Such a response likely eliminates the threat of certain chemical or biological contaminants which could result in greater danger to the community.
Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological:
The post from the Daily Mail tells us, “Tests on the substance involved are being carried out at the defence research centre at Porton Down.”
There must have been evidence of the substance available at the scene allowing for samples to be taken for testing. Based on the previous assassination of a former Russian spy using radioactive materials, one can conclude nuclear scientists will be vigorously investigating the substance for radioactivity.
Since Scotland Yard’s counter-terror investigators are involved, it is reasonable to assume chemists and biologists will also be conducting tests on the substance.
A Toxicology Investigation:
I know most of us in the legal community think of forensic toxicologists being needed to detect drugs in a person’s system. Usually we see the use of toxicologists in a DUI, employment, or toxic tort related matter.
We don’t normally think of the need for toxicologists in an assassination or attempted assassination. However, if we remove the international intrigue from the equation, we are simply left with murder or attempted murder. Therefore, investigators will need to know the impact of the substance on Mr. Skripal and his daughter.
The Daily Mail noted, ” Emergency services initially believed Mr. Skripal and his daughter had taken fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is up to 100 times more potent than heroin that has caused thousands of deaths among drug addicts worldwide.”
A toxicological investigation of the Skripal’s will be necessary to help determine the substance used to either drug or poison them.
It is too early to conclude anything. Until we know more about the substance, we cannot identify the most appropriate experts to assist in the investigation. As the substance appears to be unknown as of today, we can only suspect UK authorities will employ all of the above during their investigation.
Should this incident turn into a murder investigation, we are likely to see several of the above experts testifying as expert witnesses.