Tue | Jul 17, 2018

Peter Espeut | Getting a conviction

Published:Friday | June 2, 2017 | 12:00 AM
File Cash Plus CEO Carlos Hill is escorted from his home at Norbrook, St Andrew, by the police on April 10. Hill recently walked free after fraud charges against him were dropped.

I first became conscious of it in 1999 after Michael Gayle, a young mentally challenged man riding a bicycle, was beaten to death by Jamaican security forces at a roadblock.

The autopsy conducted by an independent pathologist diagnosed that he died from peritonitis secondary to traumatic rupture of the stomach caused by beatings from gun butts, and punches and kicks from military boots. The members of the security forces were arrested and charged with murder, but all were acquitted and walked away free men when the prosecution could not prove which of them struck the fatal blow.

I thought to myself: Was murder the only charge that could have been laid against these brave agents of the State by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), who is also an agent of the State? What about accessory to murder? What about excessive use of force? What about assault occasioning grievous bodily harm? What about felonious wounding?

Wasn't it more important that these law enforcement officers - unworthy of the name - be convicted of a lesser criminal offence and, therefore, removed from the force, rather than they be set free when the prosecution fails to attain the high standard of proof necessary to obtain a conviction for the high crime of murder?

When US authorities could not obtain the evidence to convict notorious mobster Alfonse Gabriel Capone (better known as Scarface Al Capone) suspected of murder, bootlegging, bribery, prostitution and racketeering, they got Capone on tax evasion; he was sentenced to eleven years in a federal prison along with a fine. Better to convict a gangster on a lesser charge you can prove rather than lay a charge with a heavy penalty that you can't!


notorious leader


We used to have in Jamaica a gang leader known as Christopher Michael Coke (aka 'Dudus'), leader of the notorious Shower Posse, suspected of murder, extortion, importing guns into Jamaica, and exporting large quantities of ganja and cocaine into the United States of America (USA).

Possibly because of his political connections, the Jamaican authorities never did find anything to charge Dudus for, but in 2009, the USA asked the Jamaican Government for the extradition of Coke on drug trafficking and gunrunning charges. On trial in the USA in 2011, Coke initially pleaded not guilty to drug trafficking and weapons trafficking, but the Jamaican Government provided evidence derived from wiretapping Coke's cell phone. It had recorded at least 50,000 conversations dating back to 2004.

Coke pleaded guilty to the lesser charges of racketeering, conspiracy for trafficking large quantities of marijuana and cocaine into the United States, and conspiracy to commit assault in aid of racketeering; Dudus was sentenced to 23 years in a federal prison.

So the Americans got their man, always preferring to convict on a lesser charge rather than risk acquittal on a major change.

Which brings me to Carlos Hill and the Cash Plus fiasco. Maybe there is no such charge as 'operating a Ponzi scheme' in Jamaican law, and so the DPP decided to charge Hill with multiple cases of fraud after reports that he owed J$10 billion to more than 40,000 'investors'.


Obtain forensic evidence


Prosecutions in Jamaica have always relied too much on witnesses of wrongdoing coming forward to give evidence, and therefore, witnesses are threatened and even murdered. Elsewhere in the world, great reliance is placed on forensic evidence to obtain convictions, and I have called for our investigating agencies to beef up their scientific data-collection arms.

Hill claimed to be using depositors' money to trade in foreign-currency making huge profits. Where is the evidence that Hill was engaged in foreign currency trading? In which market was he trading? Did the search of his offices and his computers show traces of such trading? Do the foreign-currency markets have records of large quantities of trading by Hill? Is it a crime to purport to be a foreign-currency trader when you are not?

Apparently, the DPP relied on witnesses coming forward to claim that Hill fraudulently duped them into putting money into Cash Plus, and the DPP didn't have a shred of evidence otherwise. Is this how Allen Stanford, now serving 110 years in a federal prison, was brought down? Is this how Olint's boss, David Smith, was brought down?

Were the witnesses expected to appear to give evidence against Hill still aggrieved by Cash Plus? Did they get their money back? Did other influential people get their money back? It is important to get answers to these questions.

The DPP needs to make convictions more likely by pressing charges - even lesser charges - that can stick. And it is about time that Jamaica's investigating agencies have the forensic capability to make up for the absence of witnesses.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.