The Baugh trial

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The Baugh trial

JASON
McKAY

Sunday, December 08, 2019

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The trial of three police officers for the fatal shooting of Rohan Fraser, aka Baugh, a famous gunman from the 1990s in Tivoli Gardens, was big news in its time.

However, despite it having been a highly publicised legal and political drama, its infamy has not stood the test of time.

It was unique, though, in so many ways and is still one of the most memorable trials of my career.

I was the reconstruction expert and trial investigator in this matter for the defence and would, from this case, go on to have the same job for the Braeton, Kraal, and Flankers matters.

Here is why the Baugh trial was unique.

Baugh was first brought to the public's attention as one of a dozen names publicly handed over to the police by the then Member of Parliament for Tivoli Gardens Edward Seaga. Mr Seaga stated that the men committed gun crimes and other atrocities in the community. The list was, interestingly enough, headed by Christopher “Dudus” Coke.

Now, Edward Seaga had many great strengths, but giving up gunmen from Tivoli was not one of them. So this was a 'big deal'.

When Baugh was killed in 1996 in a shoot-out with the police, mayhem followed. Several were killed and the Denham Town Police Station was shot up.

Some months later, to the shock of the nation and particularly the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), the police officers were charged. This was followed by a virtual sick-out by JCF members islandwide. Hundreds of police officers attended the first day of the trial in a show of support. Those were the good days of unity.

I was fortunate to have read the ruling by then Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Glen Andrade, who said that the police officers' claim that Baugh was hiding in the living room ceiling and fell out firing was unfounded, based on his inspection of the noted ceiling and its limited space. This was apparently the major issue that led to the officers being charged.

The team selected to defend the cops was possibly the best legal team ever assembled in Jamaica's modern history. Some of the members were Ian Ramsay, Howard Hamilton and Churchill Neita. The aforementioned were all top of the bar in those days. The only one missing to make it perfect was Frank Phipps.

I requested an inspection of the ceiling to complete my reconstruction and, after some ado, a truckload of policemen and soldiers was assigned to escort the legal defence team.

This may seem ridiculous to the young among us, but before the 2010 Tivoli Gardens operation that left 70-odd gunmen dead and dozens of soldiers and police wounded and a JCF member killed, truckloads of policemen was the standard for entry into this politically protected fort.

The inspection date came and I, a slew of lawyers, and the accompanying troops visited the home of Baugh in fort Tivoli. The inspection was conducted and where his relatives pulled down the ceiling it revealed about eight inches of space between ceiling and roof — similar to what I had read in the ruling.

I then asked for the other side of the ceiling to be pulled down and measured. The relatives suddenly became less compliant. After some insistence the ceiling was pulled down, revealing about two to three feet of space. This was enough to hide the slim, athletic Baugh and to support his weight on the frame.

I saw also that it would be likely to collapse if he tried to move in that space, as not all of the frame was of consistent strength. Bear in mind that the police claimed the ceiling collapsed when he moved while they were searching it.

I was sure then that the same trick they had tried to pull on me was what they must have done to Director Andrade.

I, of course, had to get an engineer to accompany the team into Tivoli, and later to give evidence. This was like finding a Nazi supporter in Israel. Everyone turned me down. All were paralysed with fear of this militia we allowed to operate in our country, to the point of domination.

After much searching, I approached a young engineer who had just returned from Trinidad. His inexperience did not matter, as this was an issue of basic carpentry and measuring a space.

The courage required, however, to face this army led by a young “Dudus” Coke was a quality that he did have. He did the inspection and I waited, deeply concerned that he would not turn up for trial. I was actually hoping the case would end before.

I was also young and still believed in the simplicity of life and thought we could just inform the director of our findings. We could all do a re-inspection together — this, I imagined, would have ended the matter. Being older now, and with 20-odd more years of experience in the court system, I realise that it is just not like that.

After a change of venue to St Thomas, a fiery trial featuring Jamaica's most famous defence counsel and a spirited performance by the prosecutor, two officers walked free. The third was already dead after a brief, suspicious illness. One of the two surviving officers was also killed, by persons unknown, within two years.

This case turned on the evidence of the young engineer, who risked his life giving evidence on the space of the ceiling and the strength of its structure.

The Baugh fiasco was a tragedy that resulted in the death of several people in the unrest that followed. It also was traumatic to the accused cops, and a very expensive lesson in engineering.

There is much to learn from the Baugh trial. It demonstrated the importance we put on justice that we would even have a trial for the life of a criminal like Baugh. Many countries would not.

It teaches the young the great improvements we have made in the control of our garrisons — to where we do not need armies in trucks to conduct inspections of houses, irrespective of where they are.

It shows that police officers coming under stress for doing their jobs did not begin in 2011. And very importantly, it shows how one brave young engineer, fresh out of university, could prevent an injustice by just doing the right thing, despite the risk to himself.

Feedback: jasonamckay@gmail.com


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