Court awards over $20M in damages for police killing of ‘innocent bystander’

Dameon Belgrave

Ruling that police officers were both negligent and reckless in their discharge of gunfire in front of  the White Castle Fish Shop back in 2012, which claimed the life of “innocent bystander” Dameon Belgrave, Justice Sandil Kissoon yesterday awarded damages in excess of $20 million to the young man’s mother, for his wrongful death.

Following her son’s death, Donna Sulker had taken the state to court, seeking damages for what she said was his wrongful death by members of the Guyana Police Force, whom she said deprived him of his fundamental right to life. The action was brought against the Commissioner of Police and Attorney General (AG).

In handing down his judgment, Justice Kissoon said that contrary to the Attorney General’s claims on behalf of the police force that the officers were acting in the lawful execution of their duties, there was evidence which substantiated that the police did so “recklessly and negligently.”

The judge said given that the area where the shooting took place is a known recreational space and is usually densely crowded during the weekends—as it was when the shooting occurred—he found that the police officers were negligent and reckless in their shooting, which took the life of the “innocent bystander.”

Against this background, Sulker was awarded $15 million in damages, with the judge declaring that the police had breached Belgrave’s right to life as guaranteed by the constitution.

Additionally, Sulker was awarded $5,720,000 for loss of her own dependence on her son, had he been given the chance to live and work and financially contribute towards his mother’s upkeep.

The court computed those damages by assessing from evidence provided of Belgrave’s academic performance, among other things, what he would likely have been able to earn from the time of his death to yesterday’s ruling.

The court also granted $1 million in general damages. Another $250,000 was awarded under special damages for funeral expenses incurred, while Sulker was also awarded $300,000 for court costs.

These sums are all to be borne by the state and the judge ordered that interest also be paid at a rate of 6% per annum from the date of Belgrave’s death to yesterday’s day when judgment was passed and 4% until fully paid.

Sulker was represented by attorney Nigel Hughes.

Article 138 (1) of the Constitution provides, “No person shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of any offence under the laws of Guyana of which he has been convicted.”

Belgrave had been struck by a bullet fired by a policeman during a pursuit.

The two officers implicated in the shooting, Sheldon Williams and Errol Williams, had been charged and placed before the courts on charges of manslaughter but the matter was thrown out by the court. It had been previously reported by this newspaper that though evidence was presented at the preliminary inquiry (PI) into the charge against them that suggested the bullet which killed Belgrave came from the firearm of a third policeman, that rank was not arrested after the matter was thrown out by the court. Belgrave, 21, of Middle Street, Pouderoyen, West Bank Demerara, had been at the White Castle Fish Shop having a drink with his friends when a police patrol passed in pursuit of a car.

Shots were then fired by the police pursuing the fleeing vehicle and Belgrave was hit.

The police then took the injured man to the Georgetown Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. Belgrave sustained one gunshot wound under his left arm in the region of his heart. The bullet damaged his heart, spleen and rib cage.

Following a prolonged police investigation during which the file went back and forth between the police and the Chambers of the Director of Public Prosecutions, two of the three ranks who fired were charged with manslaughter. The charge came two months after Belgrave had been killed, but the lawmen would eventually walk free.

Just last week, the state, agreed to a settlement in a multimillion dollar suit filed against it by the mother of mentally-ill Tiffon Peters, who hanged himself while in police custody in 2015.

The AG’s Chambers and the Commissioner of Police gave an undertaking to compensate the dead man’s mother for the death of her son.

Justice Navindra Singh, before whom that matter was being heard, has given the parties up to no later than January 15th of next year to agree on the quantum to be paid over to the claimant, the mother of the deceased, Helena Peters.

Earlier this year, Peters filed a $100 million lawsuit against the state, claiming its negligence as the cause for the death of her son.

Aside from that sum, she was also asking the court to award $1.2 million in special damages for the funeral expenses and burial expenses she incurred.

Peters at the time of his death on January 22nd, 2015, was in custody at the East Ruimveldt Police Outpost following an accusation of simple larceny. He was arrested the previous day and had spent the night in the lockups.

In her statement of claim, Peters had argued that given her son’s peculiar medical condition the police breached his constitutional right to life and health while in their custody and acted contrary to the standard of behaviour and conduct expected of the reasonable man in the treatment of a vulnerable detainee, therein breaching the duty of care they had to her son.

 

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