Dudley Thompson's rich legacy

A brighter legal mind was hard to find

By HG HELPS Editor-at-Large helpsh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, January 22, 2012

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THE late Jamaican Cabinet minister and outstanding legal mind, Ambassador Dudley Joseph Thompson has left an indelible mark on the fields of life that he touched.

Thompson, who died Friday in New York, a day after he celebrated his 95th birthday will, for some, be remembered for his legal expertise, as well as his political and diplomatic journeys for which all stories may not be told.

Few could equal Thompson's oratory and courtroom dramatics when he went before judge and jury.

In one famous post-1980 election petition case, Thompson, who appeared on his own behalf as the People's National Party (PNP) candidate for St Andrew West, came face-to-face with aggressive litigant Abraham 'Abe' Dabdoub in the St Andrew Resident Magistrate's Court at Half-Way-Tree.

In one lengthy session before lunch, Dabdoub, representing the defeated Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) candidate Owen Stephenson went on a monologue for close to two hours, at the end of which the presiding judge, Jeff Ramsay, brother of famous lawyer Ian Ramsay, asked Thompson if he wanted to respond at that time, or wait until after the hour-long lunch break.

In a sharp response, Thompson sent the packed courtroom into uncontrollable laughter with the famous words: "This won't take long, Your Honour, like my learned colleague and friend, I too have nothing to say."

Such was the gift of Thompson's gab that made courtrooms one of the most fascinating places to be whenever he had matters to deal with.

There was also the case of a policeman who, during a murder trial in the same court, fell flat on his face after a gruelling cross-examination by Thompson.

"Your honour, he was lying so much that not even his uniform could save him," was how Thompson reacted to the flattened cop who swore to protect and serve.

Fellow attorney-at-law K Churchill Neita also recalled the day in court when Thompson, representing a 70-plus year-old man accused of rape, addressed the court thus: "May it please your honour and the jury to know that my client pleads innocent, however he is grateful for the rumour."

Thompson also took small cases and in one of his trips to the rural Jamaica parish of Westmoreland to represent a man who had been charged with burglary, the witty former Royal Air Force soldier in World War II was at his best in the Savanna-la-Mar Resident Magistrate's Court.

The charge of housebreaking is applicable between 6:00 am and 6:00 pm. Outside of those hours, the charge would have to be burglary, which is a more serious offence as it is deemed to have been committed at night when householders are usually home, as against during the day when it is assumed that no one is around.

After successfully arguing the case and convincing the magistrate of his client's innocence to the charge of burglary, Thompson went outside to his car to take on the arduous task of driving back to Kingston.

"Missa Thompson, thank you sah, thank you very much fi get me off the charge," the acquitted man showered him with praise. "Missa Thompson, a woulda like fi come look fi you inna Kingston one day," he continued.

Without batting an eyelid, a stern-faced Thompson retorted: "Not at night, please."

Dudley Thompson had hoped that he would have lived to age 100 and by that time there would have been an official United States of Africa.

His legacy as a politician and lawyer preceded him into a fruitful life in the field of diplomacy and Pan Africanism where he managed to move tough mountains that for ages had divided African states.

"They (African states) are moving in that direction. The constitution is being ironed out now, a Parliament is being looked at, and I hope to see it before I die," Thompson said in a Sunday Observer interview two years ago.

"The target is 2017, that's seven years from now. In seven years from now I hope to see a federation or confederation of Africa. In seven years from now I will also be 100, God willing. I have been through it and I have known every one of the leaders," Thompson said.

"It would mean one government of a whole Africa... a federal government, which would include the diaspora as the sixth district, by which I mean a jurisdiction of a Central Africa over North Africa, South Africa, East Africa, West Africa, Central Africa and the diaspora as an integral part of the African scenario. That is our aim, and once we do that we would place Africa, us, as a major player in global affairs.

"We have been so far cut off from Africa that I have been trying my very best to rejoin. We have neglected Africa, and we are African, no matter how you take it. We must consider ourselves non-resident Africans -- Africans residing or naturalising abroad, whatever your citizenship, whatever your residence, whatever your domicile, our ancestors did not give up their citizenship... they didn't have any passports. They were wrenched from the heart of Africa, taken by force and dispersed throughout the world.

"We who descended from them have always kept up that African-ness. Why is it that we feel good when we hear of a black success... a Michael Jackson, for example? Why is it that we feel good when we see a Muhammad Ali on top? It's because we feel something with them. There is an ethnic relationship. We have never lost our African-ness and so we are Africans who happen to be residing abroad. That is our status. That is what I have been working for over the last five years in the World African Diaspora Union," Thompson said in the interview at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel.

The former Jamaican ambassador to African nations Nigeria, Namibia, Senegal and Ghana, who earned the nickname 'Burning Spear' because of his defence of Kenyan Jomo Kenyatta (who later became president of Kenya) in the Mau Mau treason trials of 1952, told this newspaper that Africa has been treated unfairly, globally. He wanted all that to change.

"The portrayal of Africa is quite unfair. People think of it as a continent of corruption, and military coups. That is there, but we are thinking about a place that is large enough to include, geographically, the whole of the United States, the whole of India, the whole of China, the whole of Argentina... all of that could fit into Africa. It's a big place," he said.

"Nigeria alone is about 80 times the size of Jamaica. Now, with a place like that you can always pick out the sores and the warts, but there are some very good spots there.

"If you go to Dakar in Senegal, you will see wider streets than you have in any part of the West Indies. Wide streets that are kept clean with street sweepers all dressed in uniforms.

"You will see people who are educated and sartorially dressed... you will see advanced people, but we don't know anything about that.

"There are good things that we can take from Africa. There are more people of African descent in Brazil than any country in Africa, except Nigeria. Therefore we (African/Americans) have the buying power in the trillions of dollars. Now, if 10 per cent of that were invested in Africa, you wouldn't have these pictures of starving babies and famines and so on. We need to make the connection. We can bring some things to Africa. We have the know-how. Being African alone doesn't qualify you to become a member of the diaspora, because we have people on the outside who say, 'Oh I don't want to hear anything about Africa... I am not African,' etc.

"To be a member of the diaspora and to qualify, aside from your descent from your ancestors, you need to have a mind that Africa is your motherland and you have a duty to help her to reach that position of number one in the world. You need to have that mind and that contribution... that's when you qualify," said Thompson.

He was equally passionate about Jamaica and its development.

Following stints abroad when he practised law in Tanzania and Kenya after graduating from Oxford University where he had gone in 1947 as a Rhodes Scholar — the only man from Mico College to achieve that — he returned to Jamaica to do his bit to overcome the challenges that existed for the masses.

He had served as a minister of state for foreign affairs when the PNP swept the JLP from office in 1972 and stayed in that position until 1975. But Thompson had been a part of the political process before, when he, now an established lawyer, sat on the PNP side of the Senate in 1962, following his loss in the general election of that year to Edward Seaga in West Kingston. He served in the Upper House until 1978 when he successfully contested a by-election for the St Andrew West seat.

Thompson left an indelible mark on the proceedings in the Parliament despite his short stints as minister of mining and natural resources, as well as national security and justice between 1977 and 1980.

He was Jamaican by naturalisation, having come to the island as a youth from Panama, the same country that eight years before him produced another adopted Jamaican, the legendary cricketer George Headley.

Despite his age, Thompson remained lucid and was a reservoir of knowledge and history. He clearly recalled his infamous statement that "No angels died at Green Bay", for which he publicly apologised in 2001.

It was an error in judgement he said, as during the time, things were heated, coming out of the stormy 1976 general election and heading into the 1980 election campaign, the bloodiest in the nation's history when over 850 Jamaicans died violently.

The Green Bay killings of five of 10 men ricocheted across the island. One of the victims was Norman 'Gutto' Thompson, a Jamaica footballer who also represented Santos Football Club, coached then by Winston Chung Fah.

Four of the five killed had criminal records, but it was the escape of the other five which gave Jamaicans a greater understanding of what had happened.

In the end, the 10 soldiers who were slapped with charges ranging from murder to conspiracy to murder arising from the findings of a coroner's inquest, were all freed, to much jubilation, in the Manchester Circuit Court in February 1982, four years after the incident.

It had emerged that all 10 had been taken to Green Bay, close to Hellshire in St Catherine in Jamaica Red Cross ambulances with a promise of jobs to, among other things, be chauffeurs and to be paid the then princely sum of $300 a week. However, some were shot dead before they knew what was happening.

In the trial that followed, a jury believed the testimony of the soldiers who said that they had felt threatened by the presence of the men and had come under fire, hence they retaliated.

In later years, Thompson felt that the stain of the saga involving Christopher 'Dudus' Coke and the standoff between the governments of Jamaica and the United States would hurt Jamaica's international image.

"It is harming Jamaica's image internationally in a huge way," Thompson said in 2010.

"We can't imagine up to now the harm that is being done. I do not think that when it started out that anybody on either side thought that it would have stretched out to such a very deep wound; Jamaica has been wounded.

"I should not think that the damage is irreparable, but I do feel that a matter as sensitive as this, at a time like this, should have been handled much quicker, not delayed over such a long period of time.

"Every delay lays the onus upon us in Jamaica to state why we have to take more action. Again, it depends on whether or not you are working on the spirit of the (Extradition) Act, or the actual legal, day-by-day, word-by-word, letter-by-letter interpretation of the Act," he said.

"Such a matter should have had quicker and more transparent exhibition to the public. What I don't like is the 'you told me, I told him' position that exists today. A lot of finger-pointing is taking place. A change of attitude in this approach does seem to suggest that we didn't start from a very strong position. It gives me the impression that there are a lot of things still to be revealed and a lot of names are being covered up," said Thompson, who also expressed concerns about the Manatt, Phelps & Phillips issue.

"What is the source of the money that was paid? (to the US law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips); who paid the cheque? Those are questions that should come out straightforward; it shouldn't take much time to say that," Thompson said.

He also publicly chastised then Prime Minister Bruce Golding for his role in the Coke affair and lashed out at Tivoli Gardens, a stronghold of the JLP.

"My political history has always felt that Tivoli Gardens is a fiefdom on its own. Tivoli Gardens, also from my own personal relationship, has always been a separate and different part of Jamaica," said Thompson.

"Golding being prime minister and representing that area should be able to come right out and clarify that situation. I doubt whether that is being done.

"He is under pressure, but he can always get out of trouble by telling the truth. The truth is the best prerogative in the world," said Thompson.

The high esteem in which Thompson is held resonates across the spectrum of the legal profession.

"Ambassador Dudley J Thompson, OJ, QC, the 'Burning Spear', was the advocate extraordinaire, an intellectual, Rhodes Scholar, war hero, statesman and raconteur of the highest order," said former Jamaica Prime Minister PJ Patterson.

"Dudley Thompson was simply the best, in whatever field he chose to serve. His contribution to the building of Jamaica as a nation -- to its constitution, its jurisprudence, its diplomacy, its political system, global reputation and its international standing -- is unparalleled," Patterson said.

Colleague and close friend, attorney Neita was equally descriptive.

"He was a jack of all trades and master of many. He was very diverse. He excelled in everything that he did," Neita said.

The outstanding Miconian that he was had seen a young Thompson becoming principal of the Retreat Elementary School in Western St Mary by 1937 before he was 21, the youngest headmaster of a public school in Jamaica's history. He was later succeeded by Vin Lawrence Snr, father of the former chairman of the Urban Development Corporation Vin Lawrence Jnr and one of the architects of the December 29, 2011 victory by the PNP, who was born at Retreat, the same birthplace of former Jamaica and West Indies cricketer, now radio commentator, Maurice Foster.


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