Vybz Kartel: A case for bench trials
News that a juror in the just-concluded Vybz Kartel trial has been charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice has revived discussion about the relevance of the jury system.
It's a matter that this newspaper has been contemplating for some time, especially after the authorities in the justice system pointed to the challenges faced by the courts as they relate to jurors.
We recall, for instance, in 2011 the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions lamenting that 467 cases were pending in the Home Circuit Court, ostensibly because of the difficulty in getting Jamaicans to serve as jurors.
At the time, Mrs Lisa Palmer Hamilton, a senior deputy director in the office, pointed to a murder case involving three accused persons, which had been on the roll for 10 years.
The accused men, she said, were out on bail and the State had been facilitating the witness in the Witness Protection Programme, but the case could not be disposed of because of the difficulty in getting persons to serve as jurors.
That challenge, she said, was perpetual, despite an increase in the number of summonses served by the police.
A year later, Justice Minister Senator Mark Golding raised the issue of bench trials for some offences in an attempt to clear the estimated 400,000-case backlog in the courts.
Senator Golding proposed the inclusion of sexual offence cases among those subjected to a bench trial "because of the kind of predisposition that jurors tend to have in how they view victims and how they view offenders and sexual offences".
We agree, and go even further to suggest that the legislature starts debating the possibility of bench trials for some categories of murder and other violent offences.
That consideration, we hold, is warranted, given the number of violent crimes committed in Jamaica these days and, crucially, the fear instilled in the hearts of citizens by blood-thirsty criminals.
In fact, we believe that the fear of being attacked and killed by accused persons or their associates is the main contributor to people dodging jury duty. Yes, the $500 per day juror stipend is very small, but we suspect that Jamaicans would overlook that once they felt that their lives would not be in danger for serving as jurors.
Guaranteeing that safety is, of course, difficult, given the resource constraints of the constabulary which, when placed in the context of the high number of homicides committed here, creates an even harder task for the police.
However, we can't ignore the fact that the State does not routinely provide security for jurors, especially in murder cases, such as the Vybz Kartel trial. In fact, the information available to us is that it was only on the final tension-filled day of that trial that transportation was provided for the jurors.
That cannot be the norm if we intend to continue having jurors deliberate over murders, some of which are committed by the most evil fiends among us who have strong and wealthy connections willing to wipe out any threat to their freedom to do as they will.
We are not, by any means, suggesting that Jamaica should discard trial by jury. However, there are some cases that, we believe, ought to be handled by judges only. We should start having that discussion now in a more meaningful way.