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Editorial - Lance Mathias and dysfunctional justice

Published:Tuesday | April 20, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Lance Mathias is 26. He has spent nearly a quarter of his young life in jail. Six years.

But Lance Mathias is not in prison because he has been convicted of a crime, although he is accused of a very heinous one: murder. Rather, guilty or innocent, Lance Mathias is a victim of Jamaica's dysfunctional justice system that is particularly burdensome to those who are poor and unconnected.

Lance Mathias, of Spanish Town, St Catherine, and his co-accused, Joel Brown, were charged in 2004 for the murder of Andrew Gordon, who was shot dead.

He has been in and out of court over the years, but a trial is yet to take place. The delays have been for various reasons, including the fact that an alleged eyewitness could not be located to attend court. The prosecution, in the absence of the witness, now hopes to use this witness' statement as evidence at the trial, which, hopefully, will start on May 2.

If we were Lance Mathias, we wouldn't hold our breath. Given the history of the operations of our courts, it is entirely possible that there will be further delays and that he will spend many more months, or even years, in jail, without the benefit of a trial or the opportunity for a judge or a jury of his peers to pronounce on his innocence or guilt.

Justice delayed and denied

In the context of the legal maxim about justice delayed, Lance Mathias is being denied justice, which, of course, is not unique to him. It is the plight of many scores of young men, mostly from inner-city communities, who, daily, contend with Jamaica's grindingly slow, inefficient and often lazy justice system.

Most of them are faceless. We occasionally hear the names, but the impact, usually, is fleeting.

Mr Mathias got attention because last week he did what most young men in his circumstances, overwhelmed by legal process, are often afraid to do or are incapable of doing: he spoke up and spoke out.

Before Justice Marva McDonald-Bishop, at the Home Circuit Court, he demanded to know the status of his case. Her instruction to the prosecution was to ensure that the defence received all relevant documents and statements so that the case may proceed.

That could happen. And if it does, Lance Mathias may, in the end, claim some form of justice.

Case backlog

Unfortunately, this would cause no noticeable dent in the large numbers of Jamaicans who continue to be denied justice. Moreover, circumstances like Lance Mathias' help to undermine confidence in the justice system, by accused and victim, and help to reinforce the presumption of criminals that they can behave with impunity.

Perhaps it is time that we bring a new realism to fixing this problem, including the embrace of approaches that, in other circumstances, might be considered heretical.

There is a backlog of more than 400,000 cases in Jamaica's courts, many of these criminal matters. The number is being added to annually.

Perhaps it is time to admit that the backlog cannot be cleared, that we should perhaps draw a red line under the older cases, except a handful considered so egregious that they should be taken forward.

In a way, we might just have to start over.