Mon | May 25, 2020

Editorial | Flaccid responses to Kartel ruling

Published:Thursday | April 9, 2020 | 12:00 AM

While criminal defence attorneys are expected to insist on the innocence of their clients, they have an obligation to do so in a manner that doesn’t contribute to the erosion of trust in the judiciary, or undermine the rule of law, upon which the foundations of Jamaica’s liberal democracy rests.

We commend these principles to the several fine lawyers who defended the controversial dancehall deejay, Adidja Palmer, better-known by his stage name, Vybz Kartel, and the three others persons, whose 2014 convictions for the murder, three years earlier, of an associate, Clive ‘Lizard’ Williams, was last week upheld by Jamaica’s Court of Appeal.

With the court’s ruling, Kartel, Andre St John, Shawn Campbell and Kahira Jones are to continue to serve life terms at hard labour, although the period they have to stay in gaol before being eligible parole could change, given the flaws in the trial judge’s approach to sentencing. Originally, Kartel and Jones were sentenced to serve, respectively, 35 and 30 years, before parole. Campbell and St John were to serve a minimum 25 years.

Lawyers for the quartet say they will appeal to the UK-based Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, Jamaica’s court of last resort, where, according to Tom Tavares-Finson, president of Jamaica’s Senate, who represents Kartel, an “unprecedented travesty” and outrage will be reversed and the group “will get justice”.

Bert Samuels, Campbell’s lead attorney, is, perhaps, defter. It was his client’s perception of Jamaica’s justice system, Mr Samuels said, that it fell under pressure because of persons who were involved in the case, that is, dancehall artistes, and their associates, who are often accused by the country’s economic, political and social elite of promoting a social nihilism that gives fillip to Jamaica’s culture of violence. In his own voice, Mr Samuels said: “And we don’t think that the Privy Council comes under any such pressure when we take matters there.”

This newspaper, of course, doesn’t believe, as Lord Atkin, a Privy Council judge, put it more than 80 years ago, that justice is “a cloistered virtue. She must be allowed to suffer the scrutiny and respectful, even outspoken, comments of ordinary men,” he said.

But that interrogation, when it comes, especially from respected opinion leaders, such as leading lawyers and public intellectuals, should be on the basis of analysis rooted in fact, rather than emotion that fits into a preconceived construct of the world.

Last week’s unanimous ruling by the court’s president, Dennis Morrison and Justices Patrick Brooks and Frank Williams, ran for more than 200 pages over 545 paragraphs, providing a detailed point-by-point analysis of the 17 major issues upon which Kartel and his colleagues based their appeal. But a few minor “missteps” elsewhere “in the course of what was a thorough and well-balanced summing-up”, the justices found flaw only in how trial judge Lennox Campbell, approached sentencing. He did not avail himself of social reports, and neither did he specifically consider mitigating factors for the accused that emerged during the trial.

Said the Justices: “Having considered these authorities, as well as the arguments put forward on behalf of the appellants, our conclusion is that, save in one respect, the sentences imposed by the judge in this case cannot be said to have been excessive to such an extent as to call for this court’s intervention.” They, therefore, deferred their decision on that aspect of the case until they receive notes on the time each person was in custody before trial.

Of course, lawyers may interpret differently the authorities upon which the appeal justices rested their ruling, which may well happen at the Privy Council. But clearly, Justices Morrison, Brooks and Williams didn’t reach their conclusion, as The University of West Indies (UWI) cultural critic, Professor Donna Hope, infers, by “the power dynamics, socially and politically, of how the system is set up”.

Even more perverse is her claim that the “justice system in Jamaica has to ensure that it maintained its integrity, and so they had to stand by the work they did.” Interpretation: that Kartel et al were deliberately screwed by the Court of Appeal in support of the Supreme Court. That is sort of the judicial equivalent to the police squaddie mentality. The argument, however, rings to us like so much populist pap.

The real effect of this illogic, including suggestion that Kartel will get justice from a pristine Privy Council, which doesn’t know, and doesn’t care, about his antecedents and that incompetent Jamaican and Caribbean judges are incapable of developing a world class and worthy Caribbean jurisprudence. So, a court like the Caribbean Court of Justice is of no worth. Jamaica and the other Caribbean countries may well give back their independence.

NOTE: A previous version of this editorial incorrectly said Justice Patrick Brooks was the trial judge. In fact, he was a part of the appeal panel. Justice Lennox Campbell was the trial judge.