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72 bodies, four illegal guns - that's not unusual

Published:Tuesday | November 24, 2015 | 11:00 AMLivern Barrett
Norman Grindley/Chief Photographer Former public defender, Earl Witter testifying before the West Kingston Commission of Enquiry at the Jamaica conference centre yesterday.

FORMER PUBLIC Defender Earl Witter yesterday recounted how news that 72 persons had been killed in the May 2010 operations in Tivoli Gardens but only four illegal firearms seized was described by retired army chief Major General Stewart Saunders and former Police Commissioner Owen Ellington as nothing "unusual".

Witter, who was testifying before the West Kingston Commission of Enquiry, said the comments came during a meeting with then Prime Minister Bruce Golding at Vale Royal in St Andrew in the days after the launch of the operation on May 24, 2010.

"I wondered what they meant by that, and I am still curious, frankly," he said of the response to the comments.

The assertion came as Witter, in a full day on the witness stand, also gave evidence that appears to contradict aspects of the testimonies given before the commission by several high-ranking members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF).

The former public defender revealed that he, along with Bishop Herro Blair and then president of the Jamaica Red Cross Dr Jaslin Salmon, visited Tivoli Gardens on Golding's instructions one day after the start of the operations, to observe the conditions there.

He said later that day, the team went to Madden's Funeral Home in downtown Kingston, where they saw 56 bodies "piled up on the floor". Witter said while at Madden's, he overheard a transmission on the police radio network that an additional 16 bodies were still to be removed from the streets of west Kingston.

However, Witter said when he went to meet with Golding at Vale Royal, he heard Ellington informing the then prime minister that a total of 44 persons had been killed in the operation aimed at capturing drug kingpin Christopher 'Dudus' Coke.

STRIKINGCOMMENT

"But I had freshly come from Madden's. The tally there was 56, and I added the 16 I had heard were left to be picked up and I got 72. I remarked upon the number of firearms (four) that had been recovered, according to Lt Col [Andrew] Sewell, and I found that striking, remarkable because of the ratio," he said of his response to the assertion by the former police commissioner.

"You made that clear to this group, that is, the CDS [Saunders], COP [Ellington], prime minister, yourself and Bishop Blair?" chairman of the commission, Sir David Simmons, questioned.

"I most certainly did, Mr Chairman," Witter replied, before relating the response from the heads of the security forces.

"Seated to my right - right beside me on a sofa - was the commissioner of police, and in an arm chair was the chief of [defence] staff, and it was the chief of staff who said, 'Well, that's not unusual', and the commissioner chimed in as well, aloud, 'That's not unusual'," the former public defender testified.

Witter told the commission that a majority of the bodies he saw at Madden's on May 25, 2010, were either naked or scantily clad and were tagged with the letters 'GZ'.

Earlier this month, Superintendent Gladys Brown Ellis testified that on May 26, 2010, she led a team that examined, photographed and tagged 42 bodies with the letters 'GZ' - short for ground zero - that had been picked up in the area of operation and taken to the Kingston Public Hospital the day before.

Witter also insisted that he heard no shooting in Tivoli Gardens after May 25, as the west Kingston community, by then, was firmly under the control of the security forces.

Several police personnel have testified that there was heavy to sporadic shootings in Tivoli Gardens on May 25 and the days after.

Witter is scheduled to continue giving evidence today.

livern.barrett@gleanerjm.com