Trinidad: Six men freed of murder charges after almost a decade on remand

Attorney CJ Williams, centre, with his clients, from left, Akili Charles, Chicki Portillo, Isreal Lara, Levi Joseph and Kareem Gomez stand outside the Port-of-Spain Magistrates Court after they were freed, yesterday.

(Trinidad Guardian) Six men from Diego Mar­tin, who spent al­most a decade be­hind bars await­ing tri­al for mur­der, were freed on Tues­day af­ter a mag­is­trate found there was in­suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence for them to face a judge and ju­ry.

The case against the ac­cused, who were charged with mur­der­ing a Cepep work­er, were among the 53 mat­ters which had to be restart­ed due to the short-lived ju­di­cial ap­point­ment of for­mer chief mag­is­trate Mar­cia Ay­ers-Cae­sar.

Af­ter spend­ing al­most a decade on re­mand, Ak­ili Charles, Chic­ki Por­tillo, Ka­reem Gomez, Levi Joseph and Is­rael “Arnold” Lara walked out of the Port-of-Spain Mag­is­trates’ Court as free men.

Ay­ers-Cae­sar’s suc­ces­sor, Chief Mag­is­trate Maria Bus­by-Ear­le-Cad­dle, up­held a no-case sub­mis­sion at the end of their sec­ond pre­lim­i­nary in­quiry on Tues­day.

Their co-ac­cused, An­ton Cam­bridge, was al­so dis­charged by Bus­by-Ear­le-Cad­dle but he did not get to join in their emo­tion­al re­union with a group of their elat­ed rel­a­tives and friends who gath­ered out­side the cour­t­house. Cam­bridge was in­stead re­mand­ed in­to cus­tody on a sep­a­rate mur­der charge which is yet to go on tri­al.

In her oral de­ci­sion, Bus­by-Ear­le-Cad­dle ruled in favour of the group’s lawyers, who claimed there was in­suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence link­ing the men to the mur­der of Rus­sell An­toine on May 13, 2010.

An­toine, 27, was walk­ing along Up­per Ceme­tery Street, Covi­gne Road, Diego Mar­tin, when he was shot sev­er­al times. An­toine’s friends, Mar­cus and Joseph Spring, were wound­ed in the in­ci­dent and the group was charged with shoot­ing them with in­tent to cause them griev­ous bod­i­ly harm. The group was al­so freed of the ad­di­tion­al charges.

The de­fence ar­gued that the ev­i­dence of the main wit­ness was in­suf­fi­cient to link the ac­cused to the crime, as he on­ly knew the at­tack­ers by their alias­es and was nev­er giv­en the op­por­tu­ni­ty to point them out in an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion pa­rade.

The sec­ond wit­ness could not be found to tes­ti­fy against the ac­cused and the de­fence ar­gued that the ev­i­dence of a third wit­ness, who gave a re­port to po­lice nine months af­ter the men were charged, was fab­ri­cat­ed.

The State coun­tered that the state­ment of the miss­ing wit­nesss, in ad­di­tion to the tes­ti­mo­ny of the two oth­er wit­ness­es, was suf­fi­cient to make out a pri­ma fa­cie case.

The group’s case was one of 53 that were af­fect­ed when Ay­ers-Cae­sar de­cid­ed to take up a po­si­tion as a High Court Judge in April 2017.

Most of the af­fect­ed pris­on­ers agreed to have their pre­lim­i­nary in­quiries restart­ed be­fore Bus­by-Ear­le-Cad­dle and their cas­es have since been de­ter­mined.

How­ev­er, the group elect­ed to put their case on hold pend­ing the de­ter­mi­na­tion of a High Court in­ter­pre­ta­tion law­suit which sought to de­ter­mine the process to be fol­lowed when a ju­di­cial of­fi­cial leaves of­fice sud­den­ly and left cas­es un­done, as in Ay­ers-Cae­sar’s case.

In an in­ter­view with Guardian Me­dia as they greet­ed their rel­a­tives, many of whom at­tend­ed all hear­ings of both in­quiries, the men said they were pleased with the out­come de­spite the de­lay caused by the Ay­ers-Cae­sar débâ­cle.

“At the end of the day we get lock up since 2010 and it had a lack of ev­i­dence in the case. Mar­cia Ay­ers-Cae­sar was to send us home but she went to be a judge and that set we back in prison for about three years.

“Thank God the new mag­is­trate was fair and every­thing work out for us,” Por­tillo said.

Por­tillo, Joseph and Lara were rep­re­sent­ed by Criston J Williams, while Wayne Sturge and Danielle Ram­per­sad rep­re­sent­ed the oth­ers.

Le­gal chal­lenge re­solved in High Court

In Jan­u­ary, Jus­tice Car­ol Gob­in ruled that all of Mar­cia Ay­ers-Cae­sar’s part-heard cas­es would have to be restart­ed.

As part of the case, Ak­ili Charles filed a ju­di­cial re­view ap­pli­ca­tion con­tend­ing that it would be un­fair for him and his co-ac­cused to face a sec­ond pre­lim­i­nary in­quiry, as he had al­ready spent more than $150,000 in le­gal fees in the first one be­fore Ay­ers-Cae­sar.

Gob­in dis­missed Charles’ claim as she said there was no le­gal av­enue for re­solv­ing the is­sue be­sides restart­ing the case be­fore a new mag­is­trate.

How­ev­er, she de­scribed what tran­spired and how it af­fect­ed Charles and the oth­ers as a trav­es­ty of jus­tice.

“The stain on the ad­min­is­tra­tion of jus­tice will re­main in­deli­ble long af­ter the cries and protests of jus­ti­fi­ably an­gry suf­fer­ing pris­on­ers have gone qui­et and long af­ter the fam­i­lies of the vic­tims who, too, have been wait­ing for jus­tice to be done, re­sign them­selves to fur­ther de­lay,” Gob­in said.

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