Accused King Valley gangsters freed; weakness cited in anti-gang legislation

Senior staff reporter

Thursday, July 09, 2020

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YESTERDAY'S 'not guilty' verdict for the six men accused of committing heinous crimes under the umbrella of a Westmoreland gang has raised questions about the nation's prosecutors' ability to win other gang-related cases now before the court.

The verdict came as a shock to prosecutors and brings into sharp focus long-standing concerns about weaknesses in the anti-gang legislation, compounded by fearful witnesses who refuse to testify in court.

“We have other gang matters before the court, and it means, then, since Chief Justice [Bryan Sykes] emphasised the absence of what he called 'supporting evidence' as distinct from corroboration, it means that where the pending cases are concerned we will have to go back to the drawing board and look to see if there is what the chief justice has termed 'supporting evidence',” a senior prosecutor in the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), who led most of the evidence in the case, told the Jamaica Observer.

“If that is absent we will have to determine whether or not we proceed,” the prosecutor added.

Director of Publ ic Prosecutions Paula Llewellyn was among those who yesterday expressed surprise at the outcome of the almost sevenmonth- long trial, which has been widely seen as a test of the anti-gang legislation passed six years ago.

Only a handful of gang-related cases have been tried since then.

“We, as prosecutors, defence counsel, give all due respect and regard to the judgement of the court. But on a human level, and as practitioners, we are still at liberty to express surprise. And I think I can also speak for the police who also would have been surprised and definitely would have been very disappointed,” Llewellyn told the Observer.

“The learned trial judge revealed his mind. This is a case the media were allowed to cover and transmit a lot of the evidence that was elicited. So I feel sure that members of the media and the public may have their own opinion. However, in the final analysis, in our system of justice, in a bench trial, it is the judge who will decide. The best evidence comes from persons who at least allege that they were part and parcel of the particular gang.”

In handing down his verdict following a lengthy summation which began on Tuesday, Justice Sykes cited the absence of “support” for evidence given by the prosecution's star witness as the major deciding factor.

The six accused — Carlington Godfrey, alias Tommy; Rannaldo McKennis, otherwise known as Ratty; Derval Williams, also called Lukie; Christon Grant, alias Ecoy; Lindell Powell, also called Lazarus; and Copeland Sankey, also known as Tupac — had been charged in an indictment containing 11 counts on suspicion of being part of a criminal organisation; providing benefits to a criminal organisation; and conspiring to commit murder, rape, and robbery with aggravation from as early as 2013.

They had been in custody since October 2018. The case was being keenly watched largely because of the graphic description of the alleged crimes committed by the accused.

During the debate in the House of Representatives in 2014 when the anti-gang legislation was passed, then Attorney General Patrick Atkinson noted that it failed to encourage tough policing as it did not provide additional powers to lawmen.

This issue was also raised four years later by DPP Llewellyn, who urged the police to push Parliament to make allowances that would grant them the powers of entry, search, and seizure when pursuing suspected gang members.

During the King Valley trial the star witness was the linchpin of the prosecution's case.

Over several days at the start of the trial in January he testified via live video link from an undisclosed location, telling the court that the alleged gang members were involved in the deadly lottery scamming scheme, committed murders and rapes in the course of robberies, and were also murderers for hire.

The witness, a former member of the gang, also said he had, in 2018, handed himself over to the police and decided to give evidence against them after they killed seven of his own family members, including his father, aunt, two uncles, a cousin, his sister, and an in-law, in seeking to flush him out of hiding.

But the chief justice said, other than with respect to one count, “There is no other evidence supporting the narrative of Mr (name omitted) on any of the other counts.”

The DPP's lead prosecutor in the case told the Observer that the team did its best with the evidence available.

They would not have gone to trial, said the prosecutor, if they did not believe they could win.

Justice Sykes, in one observation, had pointed to the absence of rape victims from the line-up of evidence, statements of victims, or even police reports of the incidents on the part of the prosecution.

That, the prosecutor said, was not for lack of trying.

“It needs to be understood that when you are going to mount a case, especially when you are talking about gangsters, persons involved in a criminal organisation, this is not just a one-off murder or a one-off rape. These people have organised themselves into a group where one of their sole purposes is to create mayhem, to terrorise people, to commit crime. The average member of the society who is a victim is not going to come forward. They will reluctantly give you a statement, but they will tell you 'I will never come to court,' ” the prosecutor told the Observer.

In this particular case, not only did witnesses disappear, their houses also vanished.

“This is what we have to work with ordinarily. It is even worse when you are talking about prosecuting a criminal organisation. The victims, these persons who have told us that they were raped, they told us, 'We are not coming [to court].' We want people to appreciate that Westmoreland is a parish where you can take up your house and move with it. A witness will come and give you a statement today, give you their address, and tomorrow when you go to the place the house is no longer there,” the prosecutor said. “Now, I am not going to say which one of our witnesses that relates to, but this is a fact that can be confirmed. Houses can move down in Westmoreland. That is the [result of] fear factor.”

While yesterday's verdict cannot be appealed, Llewellyn said the glimmer of hope in the outcome was the fact that five of the six individuals have other matters pending before at least two other courts and would therefore remain in the custody of the police pending bail applications.

“Those cases will be tried with jurors, and even though we have not been able to convince a single judge where this is concerned, hopefully we will be able to convince seven ordinary members of the public,” she told the Observer.

Meanwhile, attorney Everton Bird, speaking on behalf of the team of defence lawyers, waxed eloquent in heaping praise on the judge.

“Your Lordship has approached the evidence in a most pristine manner. We thank you for the intellectual acuity with which you addressed it,” he said.

“I am very pleased at it because some very daring attempts were made, in my opinion, by the prosecution in this case. For example, the fact that you would be trying somebody on allegations where the manner of proving the allegations is not in the ordinary course of things.”

He added: “If you are trying to prove murder, rape, slander, there are certain guidelines you have to follow. In this case, precedence seems to have been placed upon the verbalisation of an offence, and the prosecution relied on that extremely large volume of hearsay evidence from living people and dead people... That's a travesty, and I am glad that did not succeed,” he told the media after the ruling.

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