Hurricane Maria delays justice
Lawyers say clients' constitutional rights are being violated by keeping them on remand for so long
Hurricane Maria has created a unique problems for Dominica's court system. Prisoners on remand at the Stockfarm state prison awaiting trial for crimes they may have, or have not, committed have been waiting for their day in court for more than nine months and it is unclear for how much longer.
Furthermore the storm of 18 September 2017 destroyed many valuable pieces of evidence and documents. Lawyers say they are under pressure from their clients.
Nevertheless, Evelina Baptiste, the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) says that despite the damaged evidence and files her office has done a lot of restorative work to reconstruct files and could be ready for the criminal session of the High Court in September 2018. That is one year after Maria.
But lawyers continue to complain about their clients who are on remand and whom the constitution says are innocent until they are proven guilty.
Attorney-at-law and former Magistrate Tiyani Behanzin said that these are constitutional issues and people who are charged and are on remand must be brought to court every seven days.
"So if you know that the court (high court) is closed and it has been closed now for about ten months now so those people who are on remand for bail-able offences they should be granted bail since we have no idea when the high court Criminal Division will reopen," he said.
Behanzin believes that the court is unnecessarily non-operational because government has several buildings that can be used as a court in the interest of justice to those charged and are on remand.
"Further compounding the matter, our resident criminal judge is on duty in another jurisdiction until July and the court goes on vacation in August and given the situation at the court building, I can safely conclude that come September we shall have no court," Behanzin said.
But in response, Baptiste told the SUN that her office has assessed at all the files and the court is on track to re-open for the September criminal session of the High Court.
"It must be noted that we anticipate applications from defense counsel and other issues since some people would have been relocated after the hurricane also we still have some issues with exhibits so all that will surely come into play. Some of the exhibits would have been compromised because of the hurricane so we are looking at all of that in a view to make certain determinations and be ready," Baptiste said. "Our office was hit hard by the hurricane, we lost our software's and our computers and all equipment associated with that. Now, we have gotten new computers along with the necessary software and we are setting up the files
She continued: "We have been meeting with the police investigators in the various matters and we have held at least three training sessions with the police and investigators all part of the preparatory work. Yes, we are still very much concerned about certain things but given where we were and where we are now, we have come a very long way".
However, defense counsel Behanzin is not convinced.
"The evidence lost and disappeared. We are talking about 30 files in the current Criminal Session which were not locked in a waterproof or fireproof cabinet. They would have been lying around being studied and researched," he said. "The DPP and the AG needs to sit down and say that we have lost ten murder cases since the evidence have disappeared in the wind and therefore can't convict those people and so they should be released. They should speak with the defense attorney and workout some kind of arrangements otherwise; the state is accumulating millions of dollars in liability.
"The issue is that evidence is lost and cannot be brought forward. The DPP ought to call defense attorney to discuss bail or going to the court to ask for time or something. They need to be more open with the process; come and talk to lawyers".