Shirley Playfair's murder reads like an Agathie Christie epic
SHE was the chairman of the Fair Trading Commission; pretty, popular and one of the irridiscent jewels in the crown of the legal profession in Jamaica.
Yet treachery so repugnant, vile and unforeseen reared its ugly head from unexpectedly close quarters — a secretary who had been in Shirley Playfair's employ for 17 years.
It is a script that reads like an Agatha Christie murder epic with a supporting cast of three 'goons' — the driver of the getaway car and two throat-slashers.
The tragic tale unravelled in the Home Circuit Court in March 2003, retracing the savage murder of the 58-year-old attorney-at-law as she sat at her desk in a telephone conversation with another attorney one ill-fated April afternoon in 2000.
Lawyer, Peter Milligen, who was at the other end of the telephone line discussing a land transaction matter with Playfair, recalled for the court her last words heard by him: "What is this now?" That was followed by strange, eerie sounds, then a lot of struggling and finally: "Mi dead now." Then a foreboding silence!
Fearing the worst, Milligen called 119 police emergency.
In the meantime, Playfair, clutching her severed trachea, was said to have run screaming from her uptown office, travelling some distance across the office compound to a nearby doctor's office seeking medical help; the doctor promptly assisted the gravely injured woman and had her rushed to the University Hospital of the West Indies. Alas, it was too late.
Playfair's secretary, Annette Livingston 40, of Buff Bay, Portland; Astley Ricketts, 48-year-old taxi driver of a Maxfield Avenue, Kingston 13 address; Ramone Drysdale, o/c "Fudgie" of Metcalfe Road, Kingston 13, and Dwayne Amin Williams, 26, labourer of Bentley Lane, Kingston 13 were arrested and charged with Playfair's murder.
In a strange twist, it was Livingston who had summoned Milligen to give evidence in favour of her defence as she claimed that Playfair had just given her a title and requested her to photocopy the document; she was on her way to the photocopying machine, when, according to her, two strange men entered the office and carried out the attack.
Dwayne Williams escaped from police custody in April 2002 and was still at large when a mixed Home Circuit Court jury, after deliberating for some three hours, returned unanimous verdicts of guilty of non-capital murder against the first three named accused.
Justice Kay Beckford passed sentences of life imprisonment on each.
Just over a year later, in May 2003, the police reported that Williams was shot and killed by an unknown assailant on Rodney Road, Kingston 13.
With respect to Livingston, Beckford recommended that she not be eligible for parole before 60 years, giving her the stiffest penalty for her role in what the prosecution termed a common design to murder the popular attorney.
Twenty-five-year-old Ramone 'Fudgie' Drysdale, slippers vendor of 1 Metcalfe Road, Kingston 13, was sentenced to 55 years before parole. Ashley Ricketts, 52, taxi driver, of 44A Maxfield Avenue, Kingston 13 and 7 March Pen Road, St Catherine, who was described by the prosecution as the man who drove the getaway car, was to serve 45 years before being eligible for parole.
Playfair's death was greeted with much grief and consternation, not only in legal circles in Jamaica, but in the wider society, here and abroad. She had been, among other things, assistant Attorney General specialising in civil litigation, and commercial and constitutional law. She was also director of the Constitutional Reform Division in the Ministry of Justice before becoming a senior partner in the legal firm of Playfair, Junor, Pearson & Company.
A team of top detectives including Assistant Commissioner Osbourne Dyer, who was in charge of CIB Headquarters, East Queen Street, and Superintendent Calvin Benjamin of the Homicide Division, were put in charge of the investigations, and within minutes, three suspects were in custody.
It was reported that at least two of the accused had to attend court on more than one occasion without legal representation because attorneys — even those on the legal aid list — were refusing to represent them in the murder of their beloved colleague.
Following appeals to the Court of Appeal, Ricketts' conviction for non-capital murder was quashed and the sentence of life imprisonment set aside. A conviction for manslaughter was substituted and he was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment at hard labour. He later abandoned an appeal to the UK Privy Council.
The convictions of Livingston and Drysdale were affirmed but their sentences were reduced; each to serve 35 years before becoming eligible for parole.
The Crown, represented by Kathy Pyke, assistant director of public prosecutions and Gail Walters, crown counsel, led evidence that on April 13, 2000, Playfair was in her office at 2c Seymour Avenue, Kingston 6, when she was attacked and her throat slashed by Drysdale and Williams, and that Livingston was party to the plan.
Frank Phipps, QC and his daughter, attorney-at-law Kathryn Phipps, appeared for Livingston, a married woman and a mother of two teenaged daughters. Attorney-at-law Sylvester C Morris, represented Drysdale and Attorney-at-law George Soutar appeared for Ricketts.
A paralegal secretary in Playfair's office and who told the court she had worked with the deceased for some 13 years prior to her death, gave a graphic account of what she saw and heard on the day of the murder.
Another witness, Verna Richards, told the court that she was in the lunch room at about noon when she heard two screams. When she heard the second scream, she said she saw Livingston by the lunch room door. Livingston was blocking her from going out and she had to force her way past her. She said Livingston did not look frightened.
As she headed for Playfair's office, Richards said she noticed blood on the floor and when she looked across, she did not see the lawyer sitting in her chair. Then she looked to see where the blood was coming from and saw Playfair in a slant position. To the left of Playfair, the witness said she saw a man with a knife which had been plunged in the left side of her neck. The man turned around. She saw his face and cried out: "Lord, God!"
Richards, who identified Drysdale as the one who had the knife at Playfair's neck, said she ran towards the direction of the lunch room, and while running, she felt someone grab her in her neck. She pitched forward and was able to free herself of the person's grip. Because the lunch room door was closed, she ran into another office and bolted the door. Whilst inside, she could hear someone outside bracing the door. She grabbed the telephone and dialled 119. The police responded shortly after. Some days later she pointed out Drysdale at an identification parade.
A week before Playfair was killed Richards said, Williams had come to the office to see Livingston. She said on another occasion she saw Williams come to the staircase at the office and Livingston spoke to him then went downstairs.
Dr Kadiyiadi Prasad who performed the post-mortem examination on April 14, 2000, testified that Playfair's body had nine incised wounds, one of which severed the larynx. He said the wounds could have been inflicted by a sharp instrument such as a knife. Two of the wounds were on the index finger and knuckle, two were on the cheek and five were on the neck.
Cleopatra Grier, an accountant who was employed by Playfair, said she was in the lunch room with other employees on the day of the murder when she heard a scream and rushed to the lunch room. She said that Verna Richards rushed out first and she followed. She saw Playfair in the main office, holding her neck, and blood coming from it. She saw a man about to leave the office but she did not see the man's face.
She rushed to the balcony and screamed for help. While she was at the balcony she saw Livingston, who was crying and saying: "Grier, Grier, come and help Shirley."
She said that she looked down from the balcony and saw the man who had been in the office entering a car, and she shouted: "There he is, please stop him!"
Grier told the court that when she was rushing from the lunch room, Livingston was rushing towards it. She said she did not see Livingston holding the door to bar anyone from getting out of the lunch room.
Corporal Ricardo Hepburn of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) testified that he, along with two other soldiers and a policeman were on foot patrol in the Whitfield Town area, Kingston 13, about 11:45 a m on April 13, 2000, when they received a police radio transmission. On Metcalfe Road, Kingston 13, police constable Lindsay went into a yard and Corporal Hepburn accompanied him.
He said he heard a car engine being switched off outside the gate and Private McLean saying: "Put up oono hand!"
He went outside and saw a blue Datsun 120Y at the gate and two men coming out of the rear seat of the car. The driver, the accused Ricketts, was seated in the car with all the windows up. He said Drysdale was one of the two men who came out of the car. He put a ratchet knife on the wall and told the the security officers that he was coming from Maxfield Avenue where some men tried to rob them. The knife had blood stains on it.
Hepburn said he asked Ricketts to come out of the car and Ricketts said the men had chartered him up Maxfield Avenue. He said he noticed what appeared to be bloodstains on Drysdale's shirt in the region of the shoulder.
The other man, who was not before the court, had fresh scratches on both hands and a plaster about five to six inches long in the mid section of his body.
Drysdale was sweating very heavily and was looking all over the place as if he were looking for someone, the court was later told. Drysdale attempted to run away and was chased and caught by Constable Lindsay and Private Hibbert.
Sherron Brydson, government analyst, testified that DNA tests proved that the two ratchet knives which were allegedly taken by the police from Drysdale and Williams, had Playfair's blood on them. She said that from statistics it was only 5.6 persons in a trillion who could have been the donor of the blood. She told the court that the knives were the weapons used to inflict the injuries to the deceased.
Senior Superintendent Gladstone C Grant, one of the senior officers investigating the case, told of proceeding from Playfair's office to the Half-Way-Tree Police Station where he said he saw Ricketts, Drysdale and Williams whom he knew.
He said that Ricketts told him: "Mr Grant, mi just carry dem boy up there." Ricketts said he was willing to give a statement and tell him how everything went. Ricketts' statement was witnessed by detective Trevor Bailey.
On April 19, 2000, the senior superintendent said he went back to the station and Ricketts called out to him saying that he wanted to give another statement because he did not tell him everything. Claudius Taylor, a Justice of the Peace, was asked to witness the second statement. These were admitted in evidence and read to the jury.
SSP Grant also told the court that when he saw Livingston she was typing on the computer at the office of the deceased. Police and forensic analysts were at the office collecting statements and seeking evidence. He said the other workers were in a state of shock and were crying.
At the end of the prosecution's case, each accused denied having anything to do with Playfair's death. The guilty verdicts and convictions and sentences followed.
Not being satisfied with the findings of the local Court of Appeal, Livingston and Drysdale, through their attorneys, sought leave to appeal to the United Kingdom Privy Council.
Leave was granted in September 2006, but due to lack of funds, it was reported that Livingston's attorney, Frank Phipps, who represented her at trial and on appeal locally, had contacted John Perry, a Jamaican practising in England and made a special request for him to assist Livingston with her UK appeal.
Perry, it was further reported, had been some time previous, admitted to practise in Jamaica. It was said he had agreed to represent not only Livingston pro bono (for free) but also Drysdale.
The appeals were heard last April and judgment reserved. The parties are presently awaiting judgment in the matter.
Next week: Cop killer tried to take his own life but failed
Sybil E Hibbert is a veteran journalist and retired court reporting specialist. She is also the wife of Retired ACP Isadore 'Dick' Hibbert, rated as one of the top Jamaican detectives of his time. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org