CCJ restores verdict in Lusignan massacre trial acquitting accused

Mark Royden Williams & James Anthony Hyles

The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) today restored the 2013 acquittals of James Hyles and Mark Royden Williams for their alleged involvement in the ‘Lusignan Massacre’ of 2008, despite substantial procedural errors at trial.

Hyles and Williams had been  indicted on eleven counts of murder. At trial, the judge allowed a request by Hyles’s attorney to question jurors, before they were sworn in, due to the widespread pre-trial publicity of the case. A CCJ release today noted that the trial judge as well as state and defence counsel actively participated in this exercise. The CCJ noted that the main prosecution witnesses were two members of the gang allegedly responsible for the massacre, one of whom was charged in connection with the massacre. However, the charges against him were withdrawn two weeks before the trial began. Hyles and William both denied involvement in the killings. The jury rendered its verdict on 2 August 2013 and both men were found not guilty of all counts.

The Director of Public Prosecutions appealed the acquittals, under the newly amended Court of Appeal Act, on the grounds that there were material irregularities in the trial. The Guyana Court of Appeal agreed, allowed the appeal, overturned the verdicts of not guilty and sent the matter back to the High Court for a retrial.

On appeal to the CCJ, the appellants, Hyles and Williams,  urged the Court to allow the appeal on the basis that the DPP’s new power to appeal an acquittal breached their constitutional right to the protection of law.  They argued that the new law offended the principle against double jeopardy, which prevents an accused person from being tried again on the same, or similar, charges and on the same facts. However, the CCJ rejected this argument and reminded the appellants that the wording of the Guyana Constitution contemplated the possibility of such an appeal and that in principle, the rule against double jeopardy only protected acquittals which were confirmed by the appellate courts. The court held that the appellants’ acquittals did not fall into that category.

Before considering the specific procedural issues, the CCJ acknowledged that the requirement, that the acquittal had to be the result of a procedural error(s) or flaw(s) of the trial judge, was a steep hill for an appellate court to climb. As such, the release said that the CCJ constructed a test specifically for application in prosecution appeals against acquittals. The CCJ held that the prosecution must satisfy the Court that “given, on the one hand, the nature and weight on the evidence and, on the other hand, the seriousness of the judicial error(s) or procedural flaw(s) it can with a substantial degree of certainty be inferred that had the error(s) or flaw(s) not occurred, the trial would not have resulted in the acquittal of the accused”.

The release said that while the CCJ did not agree fully with the findings of the court below, it found that there were some material irregularities, including the way in which the questioning of the jurors was conducted and the failure of the trial judge to probe an allegation of improper communication between a juror and man alleged to be Hyles’ father.

“However, on application of the test, the Court held that it could not with the required degree of certainty infer that the acquittals were the result of the errors and that it was possible that the jury simply did not believe, beyond reasonable doubt, the evidence presented by the state”, the release noted.

The CCJ allowed the appeal, set aside the decision of the Court of Appeal of Guyana and restored the jury’s verdict of acquittal of the appellants.

Hyles would be the beneficiary of this judgment, Williams has been sentenced to death in relation to the Bartica massacre.

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