Reflections on my Caribbean Experience

One of the first cases to highlight the vulnerability of interview processes in the UK was that of Judith Ward in 1974. She was convicted of bombing a coach full of UK armed service personnel on behalf of the IRA killing 12 people. After 18 years in gaol her conviction was quashed in 1992 when the court of appeal found that the trial jury should have been told of her history of mental illness which allegedly made her susceptible to false confession under police interrogation.

As a result there was reform in England and Wales that led to the implementation of tape recording of suspect interviews. Equally in other areas of the Commonwealth similar methods have been adopted.

Media recording of interviews would be important to avoid miscarriages of justice and ensure that: An accurate, permanent record of the statement is retained for future use by investigators and in court; False confessions and false prosecutions are less likely, as well as lawsuits that emanate from those problems; Public confidence in law enforcement and the justice system is enhanced; Detectives are more likely to conduct interrogations in a professional manner and are better able to focus on suspect responses; and Suspects’ rights are safeguarded;

Often resource implications are raised as a reason to prevent introduction, but I reply with this “to the point” quote from U.S. District Judge Donald Graham:

“A $200 video recorder and a $2 cassette would have saved all this time and money and the questions of whether this confession is valid would not be in this courtroom”

Significant progress has been made with a Bill for video recording of suspect interviews to be placed imminently before Parliament in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. It is hoped this will be the platform for other jurisdictions to promulgate similar legislation for better protection of suspect rights.

“No Witness, No Justice”

Without witnesses the criminal justice system would collapse. Unfortunately intimidation of witnesses occurs in the region.

The importance of witnesses cannot be stressed enough. They help to ensure that justice is done and that society is made safer for the community. The part a witness plays is crucial to the wider effort to tackle crime and poor behaviour and to build a culture of respect. A witness, is therefore directly contributing to building a safe and strong community.

I have been advising Governments on measures that can be taken to protect witnesses to ensure they can give their best evidence with reduced trauma and fear.

I have taken good practice from the region, for example witness anonymity in Antigua and use of video-links in St Lucia and continue to advise the need for similar measures in other jurisdictions. This has led to funding being secured for St Vincent and the Grenadines to be equipped with video-link facilities for its courts.

To allow a wider audience to understand how witness evidence is crucial for justice a short film has been produced. I interviewed people in Barbados and St Lucia and asked whether they would give evidence if they saw a violent crime. The results were mixed with many saying they would not give evidence unless they were protected by the State. However a county’s resources will not always allow witnesses to be protected by giving them new identities. We wanted to be realistic and show how vital it was that witnesses should come forward. So the film demonstrates how the video-link system in St Lucia is effective in protecting witnesses and also how evidence is important to maintain justice. This film can be seen on the British High Commission in Barbados Facebook page.

To compliment the film a Witness Charter has been drafted that will ensure victims and witnesses know what can be done to protect them. The first Witness Charter is to be launched in Saint Lucia later in the year.

Equally important is education at schools on civic responsibility. In Barbados and St Vincent and the Grenadines a “No Witness No Justice” community engagement project has been launched. The students learn about the criminal justice system by participating in a mock trial. From my experiences so far at the schools, the Caribbean has some bright potential lawyers for the future!

We often as lawyers consider the human rights of suspects and defendants but can forget the very person who has been impacted the most by criminal behaviour, the Victim. They will have to live through the crime a second time when giving evidence and with the effect of the crime for long after any trial.

We should all continue to work to ensure victims and witnesses are aware of their rights and develop how their evidence can be adduced to enhance the criminal justice systems in the region.

Daniel Suter is the Criminal Justice Advisor to the Eastern Caribbean.

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