Barbara Gayle, Staff Reporter
The Court of Appeal has found that a judge who tried a case in the Gun Court erred in directing an accused man to enter a plea of guilty, and threatening that no leniency would be accorded him if he failed to adhere to the directive.
"This would have led a reasonable man to believe that the applicant's right to a fair trial had been compromised," the court said in giving its reasons on Friday for ordering a new trial.
Richard Francis, also called Delroy Reid, was convicted in October 2008 and sentenced to a total of 15 years after he was found guilty of illegal possession of firearm, illegal possession of ammunition and robbery with aggravation. He appealed his convictions and sentences.
Attorneys-at-law Alando Terrelonge and Kristina Exell, instructed by attorney-at-law Patrick Bailey who represented Francis, had filed several grounds of appeal.
The core argument was that the judge, in making comments prior to the trial, had stated that the case, which involved DNA evidence, and informed the defence lawyer that he should advise his client to enter a plea of guilty, failing which, if he were found guilty, the court would not extend leniency to him. Francis refused to plead guilty after he was consulted by his lawyer.
Terrelonge argued that the remarks showed that the judge had predetermined the issues before the trial and, therefore, Francis was not afforded a fair trial.
Crown Counsel Karen Seymour-Johnson conceded that the judge's pretrial comments showed some measure of bias, but she implored the court to look at all the evidence - including DNA proof - which was sufficient to support the conviction.
Court of Appeal judges Hazel Harris, Hillary Phillips and Norma McIntosh, in their unanimous decision, called on trial judges to be mindful of their roles as impartial arbiters and to proceed with great care in discharging their duty.
"They should at all times be aware that in the execution of their functions, they are duty-bound to ensure that an accused is accorded such fairness as the system permits.
"Any act of a judge which can be perceived as an infringement of the rights of an accused may operate so as to affect the safety of his conviction," the court said.
Francis is accused of holding up a telephone technician at gunpoint on September 19, 2007 in St Catherine. It is alleged that Francis, who was in the company of another man, told the technician that they would be commandeering the van. The technician was ordered into the van and Francis began driving it.
On the way, the technician, who was in the back seat, fired shots from his licensed gun, hitting one of the men. Both men ran from the van.
Blood samples were collected from the scene and taken to the forensic laboratory for testing. Francis was a patient at the Kingston Public Hospital on September 20, 2007 when blood samples were allegedly taken with Francis' permission. The samples were taken to the forensic laboratory for testing and comparisons made with the blood samples collected at the scene of the alleged robbery.
Francis had said in his defence that he was robbed and injured along Spanish Town Road, St. Andrew, on September 19, 2007 and was never in St Catherine on the day of the incident. He went to the Kingston Public Hospital where he was admitted for several days; while there, the police came and handcuffed him.
The court, in ordering a new trial, said it was its view that the evidence adduced by the prosecution was remarkably strong and it was not likely that a new trial would in any way be prejudicial to Francis.