When Police Kill
The big news in Dominica this week was that five police officers, including a woman, were charged with murder, eight months after the body of a prisoner was found in a cell at a police station in Portsmouth, Dominica's second town.
That case has drawn public attention not only because it's unusual for police officers to be charged for killing prisoners but the action of police authorities and lawyers in protecting the officers from the court and public scrutiny has raised many eyebrows.
For instance, last Friday the general public and the press cried foul when almost everyone including the relatives of the dead man, and the press, were prevented from entering the Court building where Sergeant Hayden Morgan, Orlan Vigille, Delvin Challenger, Martin Seaman, and Woman Police Officer Gemma Louis appeared before Chief Magistrate Candia Carette George.
Apart from the exclusion of the press from the court, apparently on the order of the magistrate, police officers continued to do all they could to prevent television and press photographers from taking pictures of the accused police officers.
Earlier,the five officers were detained after an autopsy was done on the body of Joshua Etienne, who had been arrested on August 4, 2014 for the alleged possession of ammunition. Etienne's body was found in his cell on August 5, 2014.
Following their arrest in August last year, the defence had argued that the charges were unlawful and irregular and as a result they should not be read to the accused.
But following months of legal wrangling, the judicial review was discontinued on Wednesday and the magistrate's court read out the charges to the accused on Friday.
The matter has been adjourned to June 9 but the lawyers have indicated they intend to file an application for bail on behalf of their clients.
Among the reasons for the delay in the procedure of the court was that Justice Errol Thomas granted leave for judicial review in the case of the five police officers.
Lawyers representing the officers, headed by Lennox Lawrence, in August last year convinced magistrate Bernard Pacquette to "stay the matter" as the charge was being read. Lawrence and the other lawyers then petitioned the High Court seeking leave for judicial review.
Subsequently, at the High Court hearing before Justice Errol Thomas, Lawrence argued that the State was in contravention of the Coroner's Act and that "without the finding of the jury, no determination in law that a homicidal death had occurred or what was the cause of death" and so the State could not proceed to charge the defendants.
In the meantime, the family of the deceased Joshua Etienne held candle light vigils nightly outside Police Headquarters in Roseau and Portsmouth.
"We will be having this candle light vigil until the charge of murder is read to those responsible for his death", said Agnes Esprit, Etienne's sister. "And we will not be burying him until that time also. We want justice and we are asking all to continue to join us in the vigil."
Now that the police officers are to face a judge and jury, the public may get answers to this question: why would the police kill a man who was already behind bars in the police's cell?
Of course police officers are authorized to use deadly force during the performance of their duties but under specific circumstances.
As we saw in the United States recently, grand juries in two high-profile cases declined to indict police officers for killing unarmed men. On November 24, a St. Louis County grand jury decided there wasn't probable cause to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old. And on Wednesday, December 3, a grand jury in New York City decided not to indict Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died after the officer put him in a chokehold.
If a policeman murders someone, he or she has broken the law of the land and has also violated the police force's regulations.
Generally, police officers may be justified in using deadly force if the officer feels he has to use force to protect his life or the life of another innocent person and also if a suspect of a serious crime is about to escape.
The question is: what were the circumstances that warranted the killing of Joshua Etienne in the police cell in Portsmouth?