Cops escape murder charges… Court orders a new inquest

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Four years ago, a Coroner ordered that three policemen be charged with murder. These policemen challenged the ruling of the Coroner.

On Thursday, the Court of Appeal quashed the decision of the Coroner and ordered a new inquest. Court of Appeal judges Peter Jamadar, Alice Yorke-Soo Hon and Gregory Smith  quashed the order of Coroner Nalini Singh. She sat as Coroner into the death of 24-year-old Nazim Christian, who was killed in a shootout with police on May 4, 2005 in Laventille.

In 2012, following an inquest hearing at the Port-of-Spain Magistrates’ Court, Coroner Singh ordered that the three officers be charged with the murder of the Laventille man. Senior Counsel Israel Khan, one of the attorneys representing the police officers, submitted to the judges that the coroner’s decision was irrational and she failed to give reasons why she rejected the version of the killing given by the policemen and their witnesses.

Khan pointed out that there were two diametrically opposed versions of the shooting, and the coroner as adjudicator of the facts, had to say why she rejected the officers’ evidence. “The coroner is not a rubber stamp. She was bound to give reasons in an inquest. She fell short of her judicial functions when she gave no reasons,” attorney Khan argued.

He said the case was of extreme importance since it affects other similar cases of police officers, as it relates to the execution of their duties. In response, attorney Jagdeo Singh, who appeared for the Coroner and DPP, said a police officer who charges a suspect on reasonable grounds, could not expect to not be subjected to the same. “ Police officers are not placed in special categories. There is no distinction to be drawn and would be wrong to place a police officer in a special class,” Singh said.

CORONER’S RULING

“I am of the view that there is some evidence which taken at face value, establishes each essential element of the offence of murder. There is evidence in the record upon which a properly instructed jury could rationally conclude that Sgt Roy, PC Bentick and PC Baldwin are guilty of murder beyond reasonable doubt,” Singh read.

The Coroner made reference to evidence which had been obtained during cross-examination of Jivonne John and Erica John (the brother and mother of the deceased) by Khan SC, in which the three officers had been identified as having surrounded Christian when he was shot.

During the same cross-examination, Steele had not been identified as being among the group of officers.

“In light of this, I make the finding that there is no evidence in the record upon which a properly instructed jury could rationally conclude that PC Steele is guilty of murder beyond reasonable doubt,” Singh ruled.

Initial police reports had indicated Christian originally shot at a group of officers and was killed when the officers returned fire. However, residents have always claimed that Christian had been unarmed and was surrounded by a group of police officers when he was shot and killed.

The Coroner also addressed an issue which was raised in 2010, during the inquest, that three senior police officers, all now retired, allegedly attempted to pervert the course of public justice during investigations into Christian’s death.

Witness Erica John had alleged during her testimony back in 2010, that she had spoken to a senior officer during the investigation and the officer told her to leave out certain parts in her statements.

John also claimed that when she went to give her statements to two other senior police officers she indicated she had seen the police officers who shot Christian dead, and if called to do so, she could identify the officers. However, John’s police statements reflected that she would be unable to identify the officers who shot Christian dead.

In her ruling, Singh, while noting John’s claims, said this issue was beyond the scope and breadth of her role as a Coroner, to make a ruling on the issue, under the Coroner’s Act, Chapter 6:04.

Singh then read out the arrest warrants against Sgt Roy, PC Baldwin and PC Bentick. However, as soon as she had finished, Khan SC stood up and explained that while the warrants had been ordered, technically they had not been executed on the three officers and until that had been done, they (the three officers) were free to go.

The officers filed for judicial review of the decision of the Coroner. Justice David Harris dismissed their application in 2013 and the policemen appealed. They were never arrested.

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