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.
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.