COVID stalls gang trial
Chief justice wants all main police stations equipped for video link testimonyTuesday, October 05, 2021
BY ALICIA DUNKLEY-WILLIS
CHIEF Justice Bryan Sykes yesterday insisted that all main police stations should be outfitted with remote hearing capabilities after he was forced to adjourn the high-profile trial of 33 people accused of being members of the feared Klansman gang because two of the defendants had tested positive for COVID-19.
Sykes made the observation ahead of his having to adjourn the trial, until October 19, after being informed that accused Andre Golding and Owen Ormsby were absent and being tested as a precaution, based on the fact that cases of the virus were discovered at the St Catherine location where they are being held.
“We are now 18 months into the pandemic. One would have thought that all the main police stations would have that capability, but unfortunately [it is] only in St Catherine — and that's not where they are,” the chief justice said in noting that all courts are Internet-ready.
“It should be regarded as standard for the police stations to be able to remote to the courts. It should no longer be seen as exceptional. We will have to be pressing the police on this issue. Remote hearings are with us to stay. Main police stations must have that capability — pandemic or no pandemic,” the chief justice said.
The first witness in the trial, which began on September 20, has been testifying from a remote location via video link. The trial, which is expected to “last months”, has been hit by premature adjournments thrice since getting off the ground.
Efforts to contact National Security Minister Dr Horace Chang for a response to the chief justice's comments were unsuccessful.
Last month, Justice Minister Delroy Chuck said witnesses testifying from remote locations should be a reality for every parish court by 2022.
The justice minister, who was speaking during a virtual quarterly press briefing at the ministry, said towards that end all courts across Jamaica will shortly be connected by broadband and will also be upgraded with Internet connectivity.
“So, before the end of the year, keeping my fingers crossed [that] the money is available to utilise it with the service providers [to have the courts] updated with the best broadband and Internet connectivity so that each parish will be able to do virtual court hearings,” Chuck said.
“In essence, what you are seeing now in the Supreme Court will be possible in every parish court by 2022. It means that if the police stations can be upgraded with Internet facility there is no need to bring the accused from the police station to the court. They could be in a witness box in the police station, or in the prisons there could be a witness box, and so more virtual hearings could be held across all the parishes of Jamaica. And we hope that by 2022 that will be possible,” he added.
Last October Minister Chuck, speaking on the introduction of virtual hearings and trials in the criminal justice system as well as installing smartboards in lock-ups, had said their installation will facilitate the participation of people in police lock-ups in virtual hearings and trials without the need to physically transport them to court.
“We are working with the Ministry of National Security to have a smartboard in the prisons [and] in the jailhouses. We have them in the courts now so that accused persons can remain in the lock-ups, and at the lock-ups they can see exactly what is happening in the courts,” Chuck said.
“They can see their attorney mentioning their cases or applying for bail, and eventually, I hope, trials can be done virtually. There's going to be resistance, but we have to get to a new normal where trials can be done virtually,” he added.
The Klansman gang trial, the largest number of accused ever to be tried together in a single matter, is being handled by 40 attorneys.
The accused are being tried under the Criminal Justice (Suppression of Criminal Organisations) (Amendment) Act, commonly called the anti-gang legislation, with several facing additional charges under the Firearms Act for crimes allegedly committed between 2015 and 2019. All 33 accused, who are being tried under an indictment containing 25 counts, when arraigned, pleaded “not guilty” to the charges against them.
The offences for which they are being charged include being part of a criminal organisation, murder, conspiracy to murder, arson, illegal possession of firearm, and illegal possession of ammunition.
The alleged leader of the One Don faction of the gang, Andre “Blackman” Bryan, is charged with, among other things, being the leader of a criminal organisation — Klansman/One Don gang.
In 2019 Tesha Miller, leader of the other faction of the gang, was convicted for orchestrating the 2008 murder of then Jamaica Urban Transit Company Chairman Douglas Chambers. Blackman, the alleged hitman then, was acquitted of the killing in 2016.
Police say the fractured gang, which has membership of around 400, has caused mayhem in the parish of St Catherine and has connections in the criminal underworld in neighbouring islands and elsewhere overseas.