Send State witnesses to the US… It has been done before

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Successive Government have failed witnesses in the Witness Protection Programme. So, it has come as no surprise that WPC Nicole Clement has decided to leave the Programme and not testify against six of her colleagues on three counts of murder.
Among the reasons for her decision, are that the authorities have not sent her and her child abroad pending the start of the trial, and the authorities have failed to carry out their side of the agreement, which put her in the Programme in the first place.
Justice may not be met if Clement does not testify and the six policemen are freed. What about justice for the families of the three victims in that Moruga incident?
Sending witnesses outside of Trinidad for safe-keeping is nothing new.
Remember Cpl Eric Williams of the Regiment. He was the star witness for the State against three persons for conspiracy to murder State witness Clint Huggins while at the safe house at Crow’s Nest, Teteron.
Williams’ evidence secured convictions against two persons including a fellow soldier. After his testimony, Williams was relocated to the United States and literally forgotten by the T&T authorities.
Richard Bickram was another example. He was the main witness against a number of people for alleged voter-padding in 2002. Bickram was relocated to Grenada where he lived an extravagant lifestyle, spending money in excess of his quota. He even rented a speed boat to live that lifestyle.
He was then relocated to St Vincent where his lifestyle turned a poorer corner. He then complained that he was left to the vultures in St Vincent. Bickram eventually walked out of the programme and came back to Trinidad and the voter padding cases all collapsed.
Sean Quamina, 26, was the eyewitness to a double murder at Sawmill Avenue, Barataria. He was relocated to New York pending the trial against Garvin “Beam” Sookram and Keron “Bellies” Lopez.  He returned to Trinidad and testified in 2009. Sookram and Lopez were sentenced to death.
After the trial, Quamina returned to New York and in 2010, was shot dead at his apartment. His wife and child were unharmed.

One thing is certain — the witness protection programme in Trinidad and Tobago has been a dismal failure. 
While successive Governments may boast that the programme was working, the justice system continues to fall apart. 
Witness protection means just that — protecting witnesses. 
The most effective witness protection system in the world comes from the Americans. We often see on television how the system works in the US. 
Very few people in the US know details when a witness is placed in the programme. 
Not here in Trinidad and Tobago. 
The issue of witness protection has been a burning issue for years. 

Remember  Joel “Footy” Phillips disappeared without a trace in one of the most high-profile cases in the courts. 

Phillips was the main witness in the kidnap and murder case against Sheldon “Skelly” Lovell and others. Remember Skelly? 

He was dubbed the most wanted man by Prime Minister Patrick Manning in 2003 when kidnapping reared its ugly head. 

Skelly made headlines when he was eventually captured. The first charges laid against him were for the kidnapping and murder of Curepe businessman Dennis Jodhan. Jodhan was kidnapped on December 23, 2002 and a ransom of $800,000 demanded. 

Jodhan was later found dead in a field off the Churchill Roosevelt Highway in Aranjuez. 

Skelly was later arrested and charged with others for the kidnapping and murder. Phillips, an accomplice, turned a State witness and was given immunity from prosecution by the DPP in exchange for his testimony. 

Phillips testified at the preliminary inquiry and Skelly and the others were committed to stand trial. He was placed in the witness protection programme. The last time he was seen or heard was on December 12, 2005. 

He walked out of the programme and never returned. 
Some say he went to Tobago to see relatives, other say he went to Venezuela to hide out and others say he is dead. Well, dead men tell no tales so if that is correct, no one may ever know how he died. 

The kidnap case against Skelly and the others collapsed and the five accused were discharged. 

The problems of witness protection are nothing new. The most famous surrounds Clint Huggins, the Special Reserve Policeman, who was the main witness against Dole Chadee and his gang. 

Huggins, a policeman by day, and a killer by night, went with the Chadee gang to wipe out the Baboolal family on the night of January 10, 1994 at Williamsville. 

While he did not pull the trigger to kill the four people, he was there when the gang slaughtered the family. 

Four months later, Chadee and nine members of his gang were rounded up and charged. 

Huggins was the main witness. He was an accomplice who turned State witness. Huggins knew that when he made the decision to testify against the boss, his life would be short. 

He was taken into witness protection and kept at Crow’s Nest at Teteron Barracks.

He testified at the preliminary inquiry at the Princes Town Magistrates’ Court and Chadee and the gang were committed to stand trial. 

During this time, an attempt was made to poison Huggins while in the safe house.
A sting operation was carried out and the perpetrators were caught red-handed going to collect $1 million in a dust bin in Port-of-Spain. 

Huggins survived. But Huggins was not a man to be confined so he had the habit of leaving the safe house. He once ran away and agreed to be interviewed at the Shoppes of Maraval in February 1996. He was having problems at the time with the then DPP Aldric Benjamin. He wanted to leave the safe house for good, but was fearful of his life and that of his family. 

Huggins loved to drink and party and it was not surprising that he walked out of the safe house on Carnival weekend in 1996. He went to his hometown in Sangre Grande and drank with the boys. It was no surprise that a plan was hatched to kill him. 

On Tuesday, February 20, 1996, Huggins’ body was found hanging out of a car on the Uriah Butler Highway in Mount Hope. He was shot, stabbed and the lower portion of his body burnt. There was celebration in the prison. The case against Chadee and the gang was about to collapse. 

But one of the accused, Levi Morris, turned State witness. He was immediately placed in the witness protection programme. 

He pleaded guilty to the four counts of murder and was sentenced to death. His death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment by the then president, Noor Hassanali. 

He then testified and Chadee and the gang were found guilty and sentenced to death. Morris was kept at the Maximum Security Prison for years and later sent abroad with his family, with a new identity and a new life. 

That is really the only success story of the programme. 

Another high-profile case was the conspiracy to murder charge against Jamaat Al Muslimeen leader Yasin Abu Bakr. There are two main witnesses — Brent “Big Brent” Miller and Brent “Small Brent” Danglade. Both were placed in protective custody. Miller at a location where Bakr worked, and Danglade, outside of Trinidad. 

Miller left the safe house whenever he wanted to and was seen liming in St Ann’s where he lived. 

Another State witness Elliot Hypolite was the main person in the murder case against former Government Minister Dhanraj Singh. 

He was placed in the safe house and left when he chose. 

Witnesses who go in the safe houses are normally accomplices. The State depends on their testimony to prove the cases against the accused persons. People do not just walk off the streets and decide to testify in these cases. 

Whenever there are independent witnesses to big crimes, their lives are on a string. 

There are many instances where key witnesses are murdered before they testify. 

For example, Cuthbert “Scotty” Charles who was executed at Williams Bay, Chaguaramas in 1993 before he had a chance to testify against Chadee. 

With the upsurge in violence in the country, very few witnesses come forward, making life hard for the DPP and his staff to have successful prosecutions. 

The DPP depends on the testimony of accomplices to prove their cases. Witnesses know that they put their lives at stake when they do so. 

For this to be effective, we need a functioning witness protection programme. 

One thing is certain, witnesses are allowed to leave the programme when they want. 

That does not happen in the US. They are protected around the clock before and after their testimony. 

The witness protection programme can work, but Government must be committed to spending money to keep witnesses happy and alive.

 

Witness Protection Programme collapsed
In 2013, former Attorney General Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj said the Programme had collapsed.
Maharaj implemented the programme 20 years ago, while he served as attorney general under the United National Congress government. Established in 1996, the programme was geared to protect witnesses in major criminal cases from physical harm and intimidation. 
Maharaj told reporters, “The programme has totally collapsed as a result of the Government’s incompetence, lack of passion and know-how to fight crime. You cannot fight crime without having an effective and adequate programme. In my view, there is no Witness Protection Programme. There may be something called Witness Protection Programme. It is incompetence at its highest,” said Maharaj.
He said when the public reads about criminal cases falling by the wayside or accused people being acquitted because crucial witnesses for the prosecution are either gunned down or refuse to testify, fingers will point at all arms of the State involved in the administration of justice. 
Under the Justice Protection Act, offences which may give rise to protection under the programme include murder, manslaughter, possession or use of firearms and ammunition, aggravated assault, shooting or wounding, armed robbery and arson. Maharaj said an effective witness protection programme was an essential component of a comprehensive criminal justice response to protect those who are key to reducing crime.
In 2013, State witness Omwallie Smith, through his attorney Subhas Panday, said he did not wish to participate in the preliminary enquiry after being threatened. Smith was a witness in the case against two men charged with the killing and dismembering of Diane Williams and her ten-year-old son, Shaquille Morgan. 
$20m a year to keep witness
Every year its costs the State $20 million to keep state witnesses and their families in the programme alive.
 From 2003 to 2007 approximately 240 people were in the programme. Of the 240, 11 witnesses withdrew. This statistic was provided in 2008 by then national security minister, Martin Joseph in Parliament. For the programme to work effectively, Maharaj said proper safe houses must be sought not only in T&T but in America, England and Canada. Changing the identities of key witnesses was also essential.
Maharaj: We tightened the programme
In 1996, Maharaj along with former national security minister, Brig Joseph Theodore (now deceased) launched the programme in which witnesses would testify in court in exchange for guaranteed security and protection until a decision is made by the court. The establishment of the programme helped in convicting drug lord Dole Chadee and nine others for the murders of four members of a Williamsville family in 1994.
 
“When the UNC demitted office the programme began to deteriorate,” Maharaj recalled. “As a matter of fact, several witnesses had to leave the programme because there was no interest shown by the State.”  Maharaj said one witness abandoned the programme after receiving death threats on his cell phone. The witness informed Maharaj that he was put in a safe house with no police protection.
 “He went to the police and the police told him to go and get the records from the telephone company.” In light of the threats, Maharaj had dispatched letters to the Prime Minister, the acting Commissioner of Police and National Security Minister to look into the matter. Maharaj said witnesses often run scared because the promises made by the State are not kept.
 “Today, the public know where the safe houses are. The Government is not providing proper security. So how could you fight crime if you do not provide the resources?”
Unless something is done, and soon, our criminal justice system will be threatened.

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