Yet another marker in history has been laid in the Criminal Division of the St Lucia High Court. With the recent spate of police killings on island and in previous times, the public wondered whether the police as individuals were untouchable by virtue of their office. Lo and behold they are not. On February 28, 2011 Police Constable 669 Garvin Soudat became the first police officer to stand trial in the High Court to account for his actions in the line of duty.
After just over a week of listening to the facts of the case, it took a jury of two men and seven women just under two hours to deliver its eight to one majority verdict of not guilty of manslaughter. During the course of the trial the Crown, led by Director of Public Prosecutions Victoria Charles-Clarke, called a total of fourteen witnesses while defense counsel Lorne Theophilus sufficed with just his client’s testimony.
Justice Kenneth Benjamin noted in his summary of facts to the jury that this case was out of the ordinary in that the jury did not have to decide whether Soudat committed an act but whether his act was reckless under the circumstances.
In the indictment, it was alleged that on October 21, 2006 around 5:30pm at Troumasse, Micoud Soudat committed manslaughter by acting recklessly in such a manner that created an obvious and serious risk of causing physical injury thereby causing the death of 70-year-old Steven Flavius alias Morrison of Saltibus. This was contrary to Section 92 (1)(b) of the St Lucia Criminal Code which states “A person upon whom the law imposes a duty or who has taken upon himself or herself any duty tending to preserve life and who acts recklessly in such a manner as to create an obvious and serious risk of causing physical injury to some other person who thereby causes the death of that other person.”
The events of that fateful day unfolded in court. In 2006 Soudat had already served seven years as a cop. After training school he worked at Central Police Station then was transferred to Vieux Fort’s Beat and Patrol Department. He later served at Vieux Fort’s Criminal Investigations Department for six years before he was transferred to Micoud’s CID.
On October 21, 2006, Soudat was on duty at the Micoud Police Station around 5pm when he received a call from the police control room informing him there was a red omnibus en route from Vieux Fort to Castries with a man in the left-rear of the bus wearing a red baseball cap who was carrying a firearm and other contrabands. Soudat spoke to his supervisor, then corporal now constable 496 Allan Providence. A briefing was convened immediately with Soudat, PC 167 Denis and PC 215 Chicot. The three were issued with service firearms. Denis had a .38 revolver, Chicot had a shot gun and Soudat was issued with a .38 revolver and an M16 rifle.
The three proceeded to board Providence’s private vehicle as the police van was down due to damaged radiator. They were all dressed in plain casual clothes. According to Assistant Superintendent of Police Gregory Montoute it is the custom for non-uniformed officers who work the afternoon/evening shift. The four made their way to Lady Michael Street where a red omnibus was seen approaching the vehicle. Providence, who was the driver, reached out the window and flagged the bus. The bus stopped and Soudat, Denis and Chicot searched the vehicle. No one matching the description given by police control was found.
The cops then proceeded to the Vieux Fort/Micoud Highway and stopped about 300 to 400 feet away from the Ti Rocher junction near to the bridge. This is an area where the police usually hold traffic checks. On arrival, Soudat and Denis disembarked the vehicle and took separate positions on the road. Soudat stood to the right of the road, facing Vieux Fort while his counterpart took a position on the left side of the road facing Vieux Fort.
While there, Soudat testified: “I spotted a red omnibus about 200 feet away being driven very fast. I imitated the number one stop signal with my hand in the air and my palm facing the vehicle in anticipation that the vehicle would stop. When I initiated the stop signal, the rifle was slung over my body. The vehicle began drawing closer to me at an accelerated speed. When I realized the vehicle wouldn’t stop, I quickly threw myself to the right side of the road. When I turned back I saw Denis do the same as the vehicle came towards him. At that point I saw two flashes emerge from the back screen of the vehicle which was followed by two gunshots. By flashes I mean the flame which is let out from the nozzle of a vile. I saw the flashes to the left-rear of the omnibus. At that point the vehicle strayed off the left side of the road and went closer to the right side. Then I heard a third gunshot which was louder than the first two. The vehicle was about thirty to fifty feet away. I took aim at the left rear tire of the bus.”
The omnibus continued driving and turned into the village and the officers pursued. The bus stopped at the Texaco gas station. When the officers arrived, a huge crowd was gathered around the bus—one man was dead and another severely injured.
Soudat testified he discharged a single round from the M16 rifle. He took aim at that specific tire because it was closest to him and the only reason he aimed at the tire was to stop the bus. He admitted he was unaware of how many occupants were onboard or that it was a public omnibus. He went further to say the incident occurred in a matter of seconds but maintains he had a rational presence of mind. To illustrate that he told the court before he fired he set the M16 selection on semi-automatic to give him better control of the weapon. According to Soudat, “The automatic selection would be dangerous and even reckless to fire at a moving vehicle.”
Charles-Clarke stated the fact that alternative means should have been exhausted before firing as a “firearm should be the last resort.” She emphasized in her closing arguments the officers had no means of identifying themselves as police because they were not in uniform and did not have on reflector vests with the word “POLICE” on it. However, defense counsel counter-argued that the first red omnibus stopped when it was flagged by Providence. Additionally, Osmond Peter who was a passenger on the bus and also a Crown witness admitted see the officers on the road and identifying Chicot. Peter further admitted knowing Chicot was a police officer. Peter told the court he told the driver Berton Elibox to continue driving.
The DPP argued the officers could have alerted other police stations along the route so that a road block could have been initiated. Soudat responded that he believed his life and the lives of his fellow officers were in danger and so he reacted by first taking cover from the gun fire then attempted to stop the vehicle.
Pathologist Dr Stephen King recovered a bullet from the deceased’s head and ballistics expert Inspector Graham Husbands from the Royal Barbados Police Force matched it to Soudat’s rifle. A fragment of bullet was found measuring 2mm just below the entrance of the wound. A deformed bullet was found to the left frontal lobe of the brain. The cause of death was brain damage from a single gunshot wound that entered the back upper left portion of the head. The wound was caused by a bullet fired from a distance and the star-shaped wound.
Scenes of Crime officer Corporal 52 Petrus Emmanuel testified he swept the bus for evidence and found three live rounds of .38 shells in the rear of the bus and a red cap. According to Husbands, the ammunition did not match any of the police issued weapons.
The back windscreen of the vehicle was shattered. A passenger to the left-rear sustained a mouth injury. The deceased was seated in the middle of two other passengers on the seat behind the driver.
Crown witnesses confirmed there were three adults in the rear seat of the bus with three children. The defense counsel took particular interest in two of the Crown’s witnesses who were seated in the rear—Charlene Mitchel who was seated in to the rear-right of the bus and Thaddeus Laurent who was seated to the left-rear. There was a woman between them. All three had children with them.
Mitchel and Laurent have two children together. Laurent received a bullet wound through the right side of his mouth as a result of the incident. Both Mitchel and Laurent admitted Laurent had recently been convicted of a firearm offense. Laurent had a bag with him which he claims contained tools which he says he handed to Mitchel when they boarded the bus because he had his son with him.
Defense counsel, in his closing, told the jury Laurent was seated at the left-rear of the vehicle which was consistent with the report from police control. A red cap was recovered in the rear of the vehicle. Shells were found in the rear of the vehicle. As such, it was reasonable to conclude Laurent did in fact fire upon the police.
The DPP rejected the defense’s conclusion. No witness recalled whether Laurent wore a red cap that day nor was any firearm recovered from Laurent or the bus nor did anyone provide evidence they saw Laurent open fire at the police.
Additionally, the police never tested Laurent’s person, his clothing or the bus for gun powder residue. She criticized the manner in which the police tried to stop the bus that day saying “there is nothing to indicate they took steps to stop that vehicle in the proper manner.”
Soudat has been on suspension with half pay since the day of the incident in 2006. The top brass of the force has to convene a meeting to discuss Soudat’s reinstatement as well as the issue of the pay he did not received while suspended.