By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” May 7, 2021)
“Justice should not only be done but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.”
These words, uttered by Lord Chief Justice John Hewart nearly 100 years ago, echo throughout the common law world and beyond. They sustain an ethical requirement that judges and decision-makers cannot hear a case if, from the perspective of a reasonable and informed observer, their impartiality might reasonably appear to be compromised.
Matters involving prominent persons in our society always arouse speculation that nothing will come of the charge. For the citizenry to gain confidence in the legal system, state actors must ensure that justice is perceived to have been done.
Our understanding of this societal reality prompted us to declare more than once that justice has two faces in SVG — one for the rich, connected and powerful and the other for everyone else. However, we have consistently cautioned against a rush to judgment and demanded due process for those accused of wrongdoing.
SVG is a scandal-ridden paradise. In 2008, when a female member of PM Gonsalves’ security detail accused him of rape, we insisted on “Justice for Gonsalves and his Accusers”. Ten years later, when the Camillo/Yugge Farrell affair flared, we argued that without more, we saw no criminal wrongdoing and maintained that this was an issue between Camillo, his wife, Karen, and Yugge.
This scandal involves Ashelle Morgan, a ULP senator who currently sits as the deputy speaker of the House of Assembly. Karim Nelson, an assistant director of public prosecution (DPP), is also implicated.
Cornelius John, of Diamond, accused Senator Morgan of threatening to shoot him in the mouth following an incident he alleges occurred on April 13, 2021. John said two men and a woman came to his home uninvited, a man kicked him about his body and shot him in the leg.
These are serious charges, but we are reminded of journalist Jeff Greenwald’s wise words, “Just as the accusers should not be presumed to be truthful, the same is true of the accused. Sometimes accusers lie, and sometimes wrongdoers falsely deny wrongdoing. The point is that some convincing evidence is required before it is fair and just to destroy someone’s reputation and treat them as guilty.”
Plain Talk understands that Mr. Nelson is on leave due to the incident. The accusation levelled at Mr. Nelson came as a surprise to all those in the legal fraternity who knows Nelson well. He is a young, knowledgeable and skilful prosecutor. The claim directed at him is completely out of character. He is known to possess and has demonstrated a profound sense of justice.
He conducts his trials with an eye for fairness to all sides, society, the victim, his family and the accused. If these accusations were to hold, it will seriously tarnish, retard or possibly derail the legal trajectory of this budding, accomplished legal profession.
Ms Morgan is an up and coming lawyer who distinguishes herself for taking novel cases to the Court of Appeal. She has a bright future as a legal professional. She may have fast-tracked her climb up the societal ladder in accepting the ULP offer to sit as a senator following the 2020 elections. In Parliament, she poses as deputy speaker with weighty responsibilities to which she pledged to do her best, according to law.
Both legal professionals would hope that this episode in their lives will be speed bumps they quickly put behind them. Until Gonsalves spoke on the issue, the wise choice would have been for both to hire competent counsel for the legal challenges ahead.
Less is known about the accuser. He described himself as a self-employed man, now impaired because of the shot to his leg and cannot currently work or meet his basic need. One hopes he quickly recovers and returns to his daily routine, which will allow him to care for himself. Surely, he is also looking for his day in court.
Sadly, the intrusion of the corrosive voice of PM Gonsalves may put this in doubt. Gonsalves implored listeners to pay attention to how carefully and responsibly he was speaking. His comments were anything but.
If he intended to clear the air, he “muddied the waters” around the case.
“This thing has been making the rounds about Senator Morgan and the Assistant DPP; how does anyone expect the Prime Minister to make a public comment about allegations made by someone else, which is the subject of a police investigation?” Gonsalves asked.
Gonsalves went on to express confidence in the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution and the Office of the Commissioner of Police, whose offices he said will “work properly and independently in the highest traditions in this matter”.
Gonsalves, who called on citizens to be calm and patient, disregarded his advice and, in essence, said I alone must be allowed to talk on the issue. Anyone else who speaks must be careful they don’t run afoul of the defamation laws.
“Don’t believe and accept as fact some of the outlandish things you have heard about Senator Morgan … From what I have been told, keep your mouth shut.”
Then he went off the rail.
“Partisan politics is a helluva thing. If the shoe was on the other foot. if it was an NDP woman, NDP parliamentarian or high party official, you know how this would have spin?”
In law, it is said he who frames the argument wins the case. Gonsalves comments are intended to do just that. He offers up a theory of the case. He claimed he was “not pronouncing on something under investigation, and I will be irresponsible to do so”. Yet goes on to pronounce: “There are two women. In this country, there is a lot of violence against woman. Is a good thing to see somebody standing up to defend women. But no, it becomes all kind of pejorative words being used to describe somebody.”
Essentially, Gonsalves framed the case before the investigation is completed as one about the defence of women, resisting violence against women. The defence of another is a classic defence. It’s closely related to self-defence.
What else is left for the police and the office of the DPP to investigate? Will it ever get to the court after Gonsalves, the Mighty Explainer, improperly injected himself? All that is left for the accused is to maintain a “dignified silence”.
Gonsalves’ attempt to wraps a protective shield around Morgan may cause her to lose the battle for public opinion, as Camillo did three years ago.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].