Is latest Inquest evenly balanced?

Dead men tell no tales. Precisely why so many questions remain unanswered from 2011, the year that was unlike any other in the way police dealt with crime as they embarked upon “Operation Restore Confidence”. By year end 11 men were killed by the police.
One of the most notorious police killings of 2011 involved five young men—John Baptiste Mc Farlan, Mitchel Cadette, Allan Lenny Louisy, Myron Dupal and Kevin Ferdinand.  While police reports stated the death of the men was as a result of an intercepted robbery, their families had a different tale to tell.
It is left to be determined whether the lives of the team of officers were under threat causing them to lash out in self-defense. A gun was discovered in the vehicle the five men were traveling in at the time. Reports later surfaced that the officers had been trailing the men, monitoring their activities as they allegedly emerged from a business place with stolen goods. According to police, the men reportedly sped off in a waiting vehicle but were later cornered. Four men were killed that day while a fifth man, Kevin Ferdinand who’d been “shot in the leg” dying at St Jude Hospital six days later.
Post Mortem examinations were conducted and families reported difficulties being part of the proceedings, even though at least one family member legally has the right to be present. Kevin Ferdinand’s mother reported being told by authorities that she would not be allowed in.
Another of the cases that made the news was one involving 22-year-old Ashley Barnard who police also shot and killed. Barnard was number three on the list of men who died at the hands of cops in 2011. Police interest in him stemmed from the possibility he was involved with another shooting in February 2011 that claimed the lives of 16-year-old Mario Butcher and 19-year-old Donovan Lovence.
In March the Coroner’s Inquest into the particular Wilton’s Yard incident began. Mary Francis, Human Rights Advocate and coordinator of the National Centre For Legal Aid And Human Rights, told the STAR she’d been in close contact with Ashley Barnard’s mother who she said hadn’t been informed of the Inquest, nor had she heard from the authorities since her son’s death last year.
“I have been following the matter and when we went to court I was quite surprised to see a whole barrage of officers there—five to six of them and they were the sole witnesses at the Inquest! The jury was already selected and I had a bit of a hard time in trying to put forth my application.  I informed the magistrate that I was appearing on behalf of the Estate of the deceased, in other words the mother and family of Ashley Barnard. The magistrate apparently didn’t see why she should give me leave to appear as an affected person.
“The Coroner’s Act speaks about affected persons appearing by their council. So I pointed out the section to her and said under that section I was applying so she allowed me. She gave me leave and I sat there and watched the proceedings.”
The Human Rights Advocate felt if the family of the deceased wished to protect their rights by having a lawyer present, that lawyer should appear “as of right and not at the discretion of the magistrate.”
“The first witness was very disappointing,” Francis retold. “The police officer for instance disclosed in his evidence that he took photos when he was called to the scene where Ashley was shot. When asked if he had them he said no. You’re coming to an inquest certainly that’s vital! The photos taken were not presented to the Coroner on March 6 during the Inquest.
“Eventually I said to myself that is nonsense,” Francis continued. “I cannot be at an Inquest and not asking questions. It has to be evenly balanced. You can’t have one set of people only and the eyewitnesses who were supposed to be there not present. I know them because they came to me at my office the day after the shooting saying they’d witnessed. I called them and told them it was on,
expected to see them, at least two of them but I never saw them.
“Persons who are crying out for justice, they themselves are afraid to come out to give evidence to get the justice they are crying out for. They are afraid of reprisal. One of them said to me she’s afraid. She has children and doesn’t know what’s going to happen. Unless she can get protection she will not come. In that way, the Inquest will not be evenly balanced.”
Francis feared the Inquest would turn out to be “one sided,” and would not work in the favour of victims.
“I said to the magistrate, as a matter of fact, the reason I’m appearing is because there are eyewitnesses and none of them have been summoned.” Francis said.
“Why is it that they were not summoned and you only have the police witnesses?”
The chief police officer stood up and said: “Your worship, counsel is making threats! She’s making threats, how can she force people to come to court, people who don’t want to come to court?”
“How does he know they don’t want to come to court,” offered an exasperated Francis. “They weren’t summoned in the first place! They know they put fear in the hearts of the people.  If I simply say the eyewitnesses were not summoned, that is not a threat. He was quite aggressive. I am concerned because in a democratic country, if we’re supposed to be a rule of law country and the state is there to protect people, police must get on professionally, abide by the law and the proper procedure must be adhered to at an Inquest.”
By definition, an Inquest is a judicial inquiry to ascertain the facts relating to (especially) a death. More than six months after the Vieux Fort incident there still hasn’t been an Inquest into the death of the five men. Francis feels there should be provision in the law to ensure a “true or evenly balanced verdict”.
“As it stands the police do the shooting, they carry out the investigation, put in a report and say they sent it to the Director of Public Prosecutions,” Francis said. “Five killings in one day is unprecedented and sad for St Lucia,” Mary Francis said. “As recently as last week I inquired from the DPP about the whereabouts of the investigation reports. I said it is my understanding that they were sent to you. All she can tell me: “Mrs Francis, I have advised the police what to do.” I said but why should those reports come to you? It’s not a trial, it’s not an indictment, its an Inquest.                 “The Coroner’s Act does not make mention that the DPP should receive reports. It says the Coroner shall hold the Inquest and an investigation shall be conducted. They should come from the police to the Coroner and if they find it is unlawful death then they send to the DPP for a trial. The magistrates’ office says they have received no such reports from the police.”
The Coroner’s Act, number 19 of 2002, section six states: “When an unnatural death is reported, or comes to the knowledge of the Coroner, he or she shall forthwith cause an investigation to be made as to the cause of death and if necessary hold an Inquest. At every Inquest the Coroner shall inquire into where, when and by what matter the deceased person came to his or her death and also whether any person is criminally responsible in the cause of death.
“Based on the investigation they will know when an Inquest should be held and so forth,” Francis explained. “It’s the duty of the Coroner to find out if the person is criminally responsible based on the verdict of the jurors. It has nothing to do with going to the DPP.”
Francis went on to quote a section within the Coroner’s Act that also addressed the issue of “unnatural death.”
“Unnatural death includes every case of death of a person which, occurs in a sudden, violent and unnatural manner.
“So it would include those police killings,” she added. “The fact that it takes so long to hold these Inquests to me is a violation of the Coroner’s Act, even the spirit of the law itself. If you allow so much delay, it means witnesses might disappear. In the case of Ashley Barnard one witness had to flee the country. He sat right there at my office, he was shot in his leg. He came with his leg bleeding along with four other people. He was afraid and has since left the island for his own protection.
“Two of the eyewitnesses are overseas right now. The people are traumatized so they run away so the evidence you can gather is lost. What then is the purpose of the law? It suggests that you must hold this thing as soon as possible. The police are able to make arrests in other cases in a matter of days. Why should police when they’re involved with the killing of a civilian take such a long time to put the files together?”
Mary Francis says she has since written to Minister of Legal Affairs and Home Affairs Phillip La Corbiniere, as well as Police Commissioner Vernon Francois airing her concerns. She’s “patiently awaiting responses” from both.
“It is unprecedented to have 11 men killed by the state in such a short space of time,” the human rights defender told the STAR. “Until an inquest can determine justifiable force, that it was done in self-defense, it is extrajudicial. Rumours around police revocation of visas are tied to this thing as well, so the state should clear its name on behalf of the citizens of St Lucia.”
Considering her gutsy stance, this reporter wanted to know whether Francis feared for her own safety in a job that required putting on a brave face at all times.
“Yes,” she said without hesitation. “After the police said I was making threats and so on, it dawned on me. My God, if they’re talking about monies passed in the killings of those people, who knows who could come to my place and do me something? Anything can happen, and that is why we must take it seriously.
“Today it’s for those ordinary people and tomorrow it could be for you. That is if you give the police such unchecked powers and there is no sanction. We have to make sure that if we have laws the state is held accountable for the actions of its citizens.
“I am concerned,” she went on. “If I call police stations to get information I get a hard time. There is this animosity. Just this week I was passing by the market and heard this statement: ‘Lapo lawyers that involved in human rights.’ That is ignorance. They see it as just people who’re talking nonsense.
“Human Rights are part of the constitutional law of St Lucia. It’s nothing foreign. What we really need is more education in society, so people know the constitution and know the laws.
Figuratively speaking, Francis says there is need for “an army of soldiers who can stand tall and defend the constitution and laws of the state.”
“People who can stand and really make a difference, and stand in defense of the legal system in St Lucia because that’s all we have to protect the civilization and our rights.
“I want to see a fair system and I want to make sure that given our history, the masses of people who are disempowered, at least when it comes to the justice system there is some kind of making up, or compensation for all the deprivation those persons have faced. We need more justice. We have to make sure there is proper accounting for the actions of the police.”
The Inquest into the death of Ashley Barnard continues Tuesday April 10.

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