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Murder at Hill Top Prison

Machete-wielding inmates went berserk

Sunday, September 30, 2012    

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THE two unarmed prison warders were no match for the ire of rioting, machete-wielding prisoners at the Hill Top Prison at Bamboo, St Ann, in 1969.

One of the warders — 44-year-old Reginald Tate — died as a result of multiple fractures of the vault of the skull; his brain was "torn up" resulting in cerebral haemorrhage and his left hand was almost severed at the wrist.

That was the medical evidence a Home Circuit Court jury and Senior Puisne Judge Uriah Parnell heard following the harrowing events that took place on November 26, 1969 at Hill Top, described as an "open prison for first offenders".

The prosecution's case was that warders Tate and Wesley Miller — who was also seriously wounded but survived — were the only officers on duty at the prison on the night of the incident. Between 8:30 and 9:00 pm, there was a riot among the prisoners. Several of them armed themselves with machetes and attacked the two warders, allegedly after Tate had gone into one of the dormitories to investigate an incident between prisoners Blissett and Nesbeth. The attack was launched shortly after he returned to his station.

Tate was later found by Bamboo resident Samuel Francis, who testified that he went to Hill Top the following morning to find the main building on fire. He saw prisoners scattered all around the prison compound and a number of them went or were taken to the Bamboo Police Station where they were taken into custody. Francis testified that he found the storeroom in which the agricultural tools were kept open, and, from this room, a number of machetes were missing.

Later on, when Detective Inspector James Robinson arrived and took over the investigations, the witness said he learnt that the offices and dormitories had been badly burnt; so were beds in the dormitories, office records, a wireless set and a radio. He also learnt that some of the prisoners broke windows in order to get out of the dormitories during the riot.

At the subsequent murder trial, 13 inmates from Hill Top prison were called upon by the prosecution to show the judge and jury why they should not be convicted. After 31 days of evidence for and against, on March 3, 1971, two of the 13 were convicted for murder and sentenced to death. They were Eaton Baker, defended by attorney Anthony Lee Hing; and Paul Tyrell, defended by attorney W K Chin See.

Also convicted but given sentences of life imprisonment were: Winston White, defended by the late Noel Edwards, Q C; Sylvan Johnson, defended by Joswin "Jos" Leo-Rhynie (now retired); Winston Brown, defended by the late Roy Taylor; and Alphanso Phipps, defended by the late Horace Edwards, Q C, and with him, Ainsworth Campbell.

The other seven inmates were acquitted.

On appeal, Sylvan Johnson and Winston Brown had their convictions quashed and their sentences set aside. Their applications for leave to appeal were treated as the appeal itself and their appeals were allowed.

Marshalling the evidence for the Crown were the late ROC White, Q C (later judge of appeal); the late Karl Atterbury (later resident magistrate) and Velma Hylton, Q C (now in private practice).

Apart from warder Miller, who survived the machete onslaught, all the other prosecution witnesses in the case were prisoners from the institution, some of whom, as a result of the melee, were also injured. The attack, according to prosecution reports, was aimed at the two warders and two prefects — Adolphus Blake and Beres Anglin — both of whom testified.

Delroy Brooks, a prisoner who told the court he slept in the Cornwall dormitory, related that he was sitting on his bed about 8:30 that night. He said he saw warder Tate sitting in the rotunda (the archway) and prefect Adolphus Blake was standing there with him. Brooks said he saw Blake leave the rotunda and go into Cornwall dormitory, then run out again.

According to the witness, Blake ran to Tate and told him: "Prisoner dem a come with machete."

Tate got up and Winston White chopped him. Brooks told the judge and jury he saw other prisoners come out with machetes and "back up" the warder against the door of the storeroom. Of those prisoners, he said Eaton Baker, the tallest one, was the only one he recognised at that point. He saw Baker chop the deceased.

Continuing, the witness said he got up off his bed and eventually ran out through the main door of the rotunda which was open. On his way out, he said he "buck up" Baker running in with two machetes.

Among the other prisoners testifying was prefect Raymond Green, who told the court he slept in Surrey dormitory. He said he was in his dormitory that night when he saw Winston White leave Cornwall dormitory with a machete and begin chopping the deceased. He said he also saw Eaton Baker run from Middlesex dormitory with a machete and he, too, started chopping the deceased and saying: "Tate must dead now."

Those two prisoners, Brooks testified, were joined by Alphonso Phipps, who also came and started to chop Tate. There were lots of other prisoners under the archway at the time. He told the court they kept chopping Tate until he went and lay down by the table in the dining hall. The witness said he did not see any of the other prisoners in the dock under the arch that night but he was certain of the three he saw.

Brooks further told the court how he ran to the Surrey dormitory bathroom and hid himself that night and did not go to the Bamboo Police Station until "after the place get scanty".

The defence for the other inmates, in each case, was a total denial of any involvement in the attack upon the deceased or anyone else on the night in question.

At the end of the prosecution's case, the trial judge directed the jury to return a formal verdict of not guilty in favour of two prisoners — Howard Alcock and Junor Thompson — due to the fact that no evidence was advanced against them. They were discharged.

The jury convicted Baker and Tyrell for the murder of Tate and sentence of death was passed on them.

The jury convicted Winston White, Sylvan Johnson, Winston Brown and Alphanso Phipps also for murder, but, because of age, they received sentences of life imprisonment. Johnson and Brown succeeded on appeal but all the other convictions and sentences were affirmed.

Each of the six convicted, and three of the seven acquitted, had been identified by one or more prosecution witness as being present, having been armed with a machete and having chopped the deceased.

Next week: Shirley Playfair's murder could have been scripted in an Agatha Christie epic

Sybil E Hibbert is a veteran journalist and retired court reporting specialist. She is also the wife of Retired ACP Isadore "Dick" Hibbert who was ranked as one of the top Jamaican detectives of his time. Send your comments to allend@jamaicaobserver.com

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