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The people's theatre

Published:Friday | March 5, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Lance Neita is a public relations and communications consultant.

Lance Neita, Contributor

In earlier times, a court day in Jamaica was quite a spectacle. The arguments and debates provided fascinating entertainment, and people would come from north, east, south and west to witness the proceedings and to defend the family or district honour of relatives and friends taking the stand.

The town squares would be flooded with persons dressed in their Sunday best, and the streets choked with conveyance of all kinds - donkeys, bicycles, mules, the odd motor car, and, of course, the horse and buggy carriages that chauffeured the presiding justice and his peers.

Unlike what is acceptable today, participants regarded proper dress as the norm, worn in deference to the fact that the summons to appear came from His or Her Majesty. Gentlemen would wear black suits, topped by a hat specially bought for the occasion, while the ladies would be resplendent in their church dresses normally reserved for harvest or Easter services.

Parade finery

Attendance at court was also an opportunity to parade their finery around town and to test the measure of the local taverns.

Court was the people's theatre, and every word, every idiosyn-crazy, every gesture, was faithfully mimicked and taken back to the village for the evening storytelling. One could also count on
The Gleaner
to back up these tales with their detailed reporting of the colourful and historic cases that have made up the tapestry of courtroom drama in Jamaica.

The Lascelles Simpson case in Montego Bay, the Leslie Hylton trial, the Don Drummond tragedy and the Rhygin saga come immediately to mind.

Interesting reading

Human-interest stories in the courtroom make interesting reading. The facts are often interlaced with humour, and the Jamaican ability to portray absolute innocence when faced with incriminating evidence is often hilarious.

'Her dress went over his head' headlines one such report of a case taken up in the Sutton Street Court in the late 1960s, when a young lady complains that while walking down Regent Street, on reaching the corner of Percy Street, called 'Salt City', the accused, known as 'Belly', robs her of three pounds ten shillings and runs away.

The defence is off to a good start when it proves that both persons had been good friends for over 12 years, but gets a setback with the complainant's bombshell revelation that during that period she had known Belly as a regular ganja pedlar at Salt City.

Having dinner

The defendant hits back, claiming that on the day in question he was sitting down at Salt City having his dinner when, in the act of walking past him, the complainant's dress went over his head.

He spoke to her about it, "quite mildly, Your Honour", but a fuss developed and he admits to throwing some of his dinner on her but, "I did not rob her".

Belly is found guilty, with the judge, His Honour Mr Vernon Lopez, drily suggesting that the affair may have ended differently if he had invited her to dine with him, adding that Salt City residents would be missing the accused for a while.

There are a million simple stories like this one to be found in the annals of courtroom drama in Jamaica. There is pathos, humour, sadness, tension, tragedy, and a wide range of human emotions and different lifestyles for the telling.

Underlying all the fun and the spectacle, the trauma and the excitement, is a strong and sound legal structure founded on the principle of human rights, justice, and mutual respect, all of which serve to preserve the institutions of law and order in this country.

We must work hard to ensure that the process of justice served by the courts, the legal system, and correlated exercises such as commissions of enquiry, continue to maintain the hard-earned integrity of the system, and continue to earn the respect of the citizens of Jamaica.

Lance Neita is a public relations and communications consultant. Feedback on this column may be sent to or