Columns

From the outside looking in

LANCE NEITA

Sunday, March 30, 2014    

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THE Vybz Kartel trial, as it will be known forever, will find its place in the rich annals of Jamaican courtroom history. Not only was it the longest murder trial in memory, but it was a kaleidoscopic clash of cultures, social values, legal jousting, and courtroom drama.

During the trial, Mr Adidja Palmer was the centre of attention in a most peculiar and bizarre manner, attracting local and overseas adoration and waving to his fans as he made his undignified entrance and exit from dock to cell and back.

His sentencing has been postponed into this week, so we will have to wait for that dramatic announcement that will close the case, pending an expected appeal.

But just as we thought that the Kartel case had given us enough to chew on, along came the Kern Spencer big moment when in a mere five minutes the judge brought a stunning halt to six years of deliberations and legal wranglings by denying trial in this instance.

No doubt the judge in her wisdom decided that she had good reasons to quash the case, but we would have expected that at least she would have made available to the public a more reasonable and detailed summation of what compelled her to that decision.

We are left to idle speculation about cause and effect, one being the unlikely notion that perhaps she was simply wary of the 65-day marathon that had set precedent in a previous case.

Other theories will abound as the case has been thrown out of Her Majesty's Court but has landed squarely in the court of public opinion. It follows, therefore, that the merits and demerits of this action will occupy our minds and the gossip circuits for weeks and months to come.

This is not necessarily a good thing for Mr Spencer and his former co-accused, as unfortunately the public perception and debates will ride on a presumption of innocence rather than the clear exoneration beyond the shadow of a doubt that may have been available after trial in a court of law.

So the court watchers and trial 'tessies' among us will curse their luck as the case has legally ended. As the headlines said, Kern is a free man. His next move will be watched carefully as he ponders the temptation to take back his former constituency, which seems to be his for the asking. This, to the discomfort of the present occupant, Mr Raymond Pryce.

On the other hand, recent history indicates that Mr Spencer may be headed for a nice board membership or executive government agency position. This would give him a chance to rebuild his stocks and his reputation.

We are on notice that the prosecution, as much as it may have wanted to, has no right to appeal. We who are looking in from the outside will therefore have await the next big court action. We will not be short of that, as down the road we can expect to salivate over the Tivoli enquiry, the Finsac enquiry, and the Trafigura case.

In the meantime, the Kartel trial provided many unforgettable moments. There were those hilarious interventions when newsreaders would attempt to copy the broad patois utterances of some witnesses, providing a spot of comic relief for listeners who had to put up with educated interpretations of common dialect.

Then there were the deliberations of the jury, and this is where the nation held its collective breath as we awaited the verdict that fateful Thursday afternoon.

The jury had retired after the judge's summation and the bets were on that it would take a day or two to reach a verdict. Ears were glued to the radio while those 11 brave Jamaicans deliberated and then returned to their seats. But the judge pulled us up short when he stopped the jury foreman in her tracks — a majority decision demanded a minimum of two hours' deliberation, you are seven minutes too early, so go back and do your time. Ominous words.

So once again, we on the outside drew our collective breaths and waited. But not for long. The jury returned for the second time around just as I pulled into my favourite rest stop. The guilty verdict was announced. The trial was over and we exhaled.

It took me several pints to recover as I needed time to balance in my mind the tremendous integrity and courage shown by the jury, the varied opinions expressed by the public, my choice of drink, and the implications for Jamaica's legal system which had been brought to the brink.

What a story to tell around the fireside. Court days in Jamaica have always been a spectacle, but this one took the cake. Court scenes are known as the people's theatre, and human interest stories in the courtroom always make interesting reading. The facts are often interlaced with humour, and the Jamaican ability to portray innocence when faced with incriminating evidence is absolutely hilarious. For instance, let us take the case of "her dress went over his head", tried in the Sutton Street Court in the late 1960s.

A young lady complained that while walking down Regent Street, and on reaching the corner of Percy Street, known otherwise as 'Salt City', the accused gentleman, known as 'Belly', robbed her of three pounds and 10 shillings and ran away.

The defence gets off to a good start when it is proven that both persons were good friends for years, but suffers a setback with the complainant's bombshell revelation that during that period she knew Belly as a regular ganja peddler at Salt City.

The defendant hits back, claiming that on the day in question he was sitting down at Salt City having his dinner when, in the act of walking past him, the complainant's dress went over his head.

He spoke to her about it, "quite mildly, Your Honour", but a fuss developed and he admits to throwing some of his dinner on her, "but I did not rob her".

Belly is found guilty, with the judge, His Honour Mr Vernon Lopez, dryly suggesting that the affair may have ended differently if he had only invited her to dine with him, adding that Salt City residents would be missing the defendant for a while.

There are a million simple stories like this one to be found in courtroom drama. There is pathos, humour, tension, tragedy, and a wide range of human emotions and different lifestyles for the telling. Underlying all the fun and spectacle, and the trauma and excitement, is a strong legal structure founded on the principle of human rights, justice, and mutual respect, all of which serve to preserve the institutions of law and order in this country.

The Kartel, Spencer, and the Belly trials may have been miles apart in magnitude and significance, but in each case the process of justice was equally tested. What is sure is that we have to work hard to maintain the integrity of the system. And it must, in turn, deserve the respect of the people.

Lance Neita is a public relations and communications professional. Comments to the Observer or to lanceneita@hotmail.com

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