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Defence Counsel Jomo Thomas leaves the High Court on Dec. 21, 2023.
Defence Counsel Jomo Thomas leaves the High Court on Dec. 21, 2023.

A defence lawyer and human rights activist is advising the Royal St. Vincent and the Grenadines Police Force  that respect for citizens is vital to rebuilding the relationship between the constabulary and the civilian population.

“Our police officers are the guardrails between civilised life as we know it and us descending into the lower rungs on Dante’s Inferno,” Jomo Thomas said at the closing of the assizes on Dec. 21.

“But I do believe the police can do a much better job in solving crime if they pay closer attention to the rights of accused persons. Too often accused persons are brutalised, beaten, assaulted,” Thomas said.

He said one simple thing is that when police show up to someone’s house to conduct a search, they should give the person a copy of the warrant.

“In 2023, they show up at somebody’s house, they break down the door and they don’t have a warrant,” he said at the sitting at High Court No. 1, over which Justice Brian Cottle presided.

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“And I think it is because of that loss of respect where police are not respected but feared that we find some of the difficulties we have in our land,” the lawyer said.

“If they can make 2024 the year of respect and better community relations, we would be on the way to detecting, arrested, charging, convicting many the people who assault our rights and dignities and commit robberies and burglaries and, worst, homicides,” Thomas said to applause from the jury.

Prisoners lose liberty, not dignity

Thomas also addressed the issue of prisoners’ rights, noting that when a person is jailed, the person loses their liberty and not their human dignity.

He said he once had a client who after being imprisoned would bleed whenever he went to the bathroom.

The doctors felt this was as a result of the prisoner’s diet, which consisted primarily of rice and bread and concluded that the prisoner needed more fibre in his diet.

“I brought him some seeds, some nuts and some grains. I took it to the prison and they rejected it,” Thomas said.

“I don’t think that was right. I still don’t think that is right. Because he lost his liberty, not his human dignity.”

He noted that during the sitting, acting Superintendent of Prisons, Dwayne Bailey had spoken about the efforts that the prison is making, in conjunction with the Ministry of Health, to augment the prison’s meal plan. 

Thomas said another issue is that when prisoners break the prison rule, there is no established understanding of the severity or duration of the punishment.

“So, somebody may be placed on lockdown and you don’t know when you are coming off and I don’t think that is constitutional at all.”

He noted that when the court sentences someone to prison, the judge says, down to the day, how long the sentence would be.

‘Misuse’ of the Witness Special Measures Act

Thomas also spoke about what he said was an emerging trend of misuse of the Witness Special Measures Act, which allows a witness to testify anonymously.

He said the abuse of the law constituted “a slow-moving assault on the rights of defendants”, adding that “from time beyond mind” people had a right to confront their accuser but this is increasingly being chipped away.

“There has been an assault over the last 30 years of accused people’s rights,” he said, adding that a judge is no longer obligated to tell a jury that a witness was part of the same “criminal band” as the defendant.

Thomas said he was not saying that special measures should not be used at all.

“… but I think it should be done sparingly or it should be done in accordance with the law, where the law says there must be clear fear.

“It cannot be that someone does not come here to give evidence because they don’t want to. That is not what the law says. It says a clearly defined fear,” Thomas said.

In March, one of Thomas’s clients, who has spent seven years behind bars awaiting the outcome of a murder charge that hung on the evidence of an anonymous witness, was freed when Director of Public Prosecution Sejilla Mc Dowall withdrew the charge, three months into the trial, as the court was about to uphold a no case submission.

Danneke Billingy, a 35-year-old shoemaker, lost seven years of his life based on the testimony of an anonymous witness, known only as XY, who claimed that Billingy was the killer, who had disguised himself so well that only his chin was exposed.

The case was a test piece for a law that allows witnesses to testify without their identity being disclosed.

“It was a horrible thing to bring as your test case. Horrible,” Thomas told iWitness News then, adding that the evidence against his client “was as thin and bare as thread” but the Crown persisted.