April 30 court date for cop accused of deadly Armadale fire

A burnt-out room [right] seen following the 2009 fire at Armadale

CONSTABLE Lawrence Burrell, the cop who was blamed for starting the fire that killed seven of 23 girls packed into a small dorm at the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre in St Ann last year, is to face the St Ann’s Bay Resident Magistrate’s Court on April 30, the police announced yesterday.

According to the police, the director of public prosecutions (DPP) ruled that Burrell be charged with ‘administering a noxious thing with intent to injure, aggrieve or annoy contrary to section 26b of the Offences against the Persons Act’, as well as ’14 counts of assault occasioning actual bodily harm’.

The DPP also ruled that the three other cops — a woman corporal and two constables — who were also present at Armadale during the incident on May 22, 2009, be subjected to internal Jamaica Constabulary Force disciplinary procedures.

Constable Burrell, along with other cops from the Alexandria Police Station, had responded to a call to quell rowdy behaviour by the girls.

Burrell threw a tear gas canister into the dorm, igniting the fire that resulted in the deaths that night of Ann-Marie Samuels, Nerrissa King, and Rachael King, all 16 years old; and Kaychell Nelson and Shauna-Lee Kerr, both 15.

On June 4, 16-year-old Georgina Saunders became the sixth victim of the fire. Her passing was followed by that of 17-year-old Stephanie Smith.

Justice Paul Harrison, who conducted a commission of enquiry into the tragedy that shocked the country and raised concerns about the conditions in which wards of the state are kept, was particularly harsh on Burrell in his report.  Justice Harrison pointed directly at the tear gas canister as the reason for the fire.

“He threw it into the Office Dormitory where it fell onto a bunk bed with a mattress of foam material, immediately starting the fire,” said Justice Harrison.  The retired president of the Appeal Court accused Burrell of “acting impulsively and reacting irrationally to the angry behaviour of the girls”, who were cursing him.

The judge said that Constable Burrell, without consulting his superior, Woman Corporal Shawnette Dunkley, went back to the police station and “returned to Armadale with the C S tear gas canister to ‘chastise’ the girls in retaliation”.

Added Harrison: “The discharge of the tear gas canister into the dormitory by Constable Burrell was harsh and unnecessary. No use of such force, even in light of the insulting language used and the excrement thrown by some of the girls, should have attracted such a response. It was an unlawful use of force by the police officer.”

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