Justice Navindra Singh yesterday placed a life ban from jury service on the foreman in the recently-concluded Lusignan massacre trial for failing to disclose that he was once a client of attorney Nigel Hughes, who represented one of the two accused who were acquitted.
Justice Singh called Vernon Griffith, of Lot 1455 Diamond, East Bank Demerara, before him in the High Court yesterday morning in the presence of other jurors, who were waiting to be empanelled for a new matter. It was there under questioning that Griffith admitted that Hughes was his lawyer in a civil matter he had before the court. Griffith’s non-disclosure was described as “highly improper” by the judge, who announced that he would be ordering an investigation.
Neither Hughes nor Griffith said anything about this to the court at the onset of the trial and the lawyer-client relationship was only known after the trial had wrapped and two employees of the High Court, who were aware Hughes had represented Griffith, brought it to the Judge’s attention.
Hughes, who is currently overseas, told Stabroek News in an invited comment that it is impossible for him to remember all of his clients and he questioned why it is only now the issue was being brought to the attention of the court.
“It is impossible for me to remember all the clients I have. For my current clients I have to check our records electronically for conflicts. There are several lawyers in our chambers (Hughes, Fields and Stoby) and it is almost impossible to keep an accurate record of who we would have represented in 2003 and 2008,” he said in a written correspondence to this newspaper.
The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has said in its appeal of the verdicts in the case that Griffith was Hughes client from 2002 to 2008—a period of six years. The appeal identified Nujomo Bryan, a clerk attached to the Chief Justice’s (CJ) office, and Sergeant Wishart, a Court Orderly attached to the CJ’s office, as the employees who informed Justice Singh that they recognised Griffith as one of Hughes’ clients Hughes stated that if the police officers knew that he had previously represented the foreman during the trial, “they were duty bound to point it out as was the juror. Why would they wait until the verdict?”
He added that Wishart was in the court every day and he questioned why only now he is saying that he recognised that the juror was his client in a matter before the CJ. “What was he doing for the three weeks, wearing sun glasses with impaired vision?” he asked. “Is it only now after the verdict that he remembered the foreman was represented by the firm? Why would the police suppress this information until they receive an unfavourable verdict?”
The attorney also reminded this newspaper that the judge conducted an entire voir dire to identify an unbiased panel, prior to the start of the trial. This has also been challenged by the DPP’s appeal.
“I am away and will have to check the files on our representation of the foreman,” he said adding that he regrets that he is out of the country as had he been here he would have invited the judge to investigate when the police became aware of the information and why they did nothing during the several weeks while the trial was being conducted.
Hughes also recalled that at one stage of the trial he had asked the judge to abort the proceedings when the prosecutor made very damaging suggestions about one of his client’s witnesses. He explained that the prosecutor had suggested that the witness had a relationship with “Papa Willy” (one of the men who allegedly committed the massacre) but failed to lead any evidence in support of her contention. However, the judge overruled his application to abort the trial. “Now, why would we make such an application in the circumstances (that) they are suggesting?” he questioned.
Meanwhile, President of the Guyana Bar Association Ronald Burch-Smith, asked about whether the association has a system in place to deal with such issues, said that disciplinary actions are carried out by the court.
Justice Singh yesterday morning inquired from Griffith whether he used to be employed at the former National Bank of Industry and Commerce (NBIC) and he said yes. He then proceeded to ask him if he ever had a case before the court and after thinking for a while the man replied yes. Justice Singh then asked if he could recall who the lawyer who represented him in that case was and, after hesitating again, Griffith said that he was represented by two lawyers from Hughes, Fields & Stoby. He said one was a female and he thought the other person was Hughes.
Griffith was then informed by the judge that he had his case file and Hughes was indeed his lawyer in the court. Justice Singh then inquired from him if he recalled him asking members of the jury, at the selection stage, to step forward if anyone had a close relationship with the lawyers or prosecution. Griffith then indicated that he recalled hearing such a statement being made. He was then asked to explain why he did not step forward as was required and he stated that he did not have a personal relationship with Hughes. He also said that he had served as a juror twice in 2011, when asked by the judge.
Justice Singh told Griffith that what he had done was “highly improper” and that he was close to holding him in contempt of court. The judge said while he would have liked to do so, he could not due to the procedure it entails. As a result, he opted for banning Griffith from jury service for life. He also informed him that if he is going to change his present address, he must inform the Registrar of Court.
The trial concluded on August 2 with James Anthony Hyles and Mark Royden Williams both being found not guilty of the murders of the 11 persons killed in the 2008 Lusignan massacre.
Justice Singh remanded Williams to prison because of pending matters, while Hyles was placed on $1.1 million bail after Senior State Counsel Judith Gildharie-Mursalin served notices to the defence and court of the intent of the DPP to appeal.
Hyles and Williams were accused of killing 48-year-old Clarence Thomas, his 12-year-old daughter Vanessa Thomas and his son Ron Thomas; 32-year-old Mohandai Gourdat and her two sons, four-year-old Seegobind Harrilall and ten-year-old Seegopaul Harrilall; 22-year-old Shazam Mohamed; 55-yearold Shaleem Baksh; Seecharran Rooplall, 56, his wife Dhanrajie Ramsingh, 52 and their 11-year-old daughter Raywattie Ramsingh, on January 26, 2008 at Track ‘A’ Lusignan.