Inside the Court House, Roseau Dominica
Inside the Court House, Roseau Dominica

A now 60-year-old man who was convicted of rape of a minor and sentenced to 35 years in prison is now released as the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court (ECSC) has upheld certain aspects of the appeal filed by Joseph Senhouse. The then 51 years old was found guilty by a nine-member jury in 2015 on charges including buggery, unlawful sexual intercourse, and indecent assault on an 8-year-old girl between January 1, 2013, and August 29, 2013.

Stenhouse, represented by attorney Dawn Yearwood Stewart, appealed his conviction and sentence to the ECSC. The appeal focused on several key issues: the trial judge's role in summing up, the relevance of Section 30 of the Sexual Offences Act of Dominica, cross-examination of the virtual complainant's previous sexual history, the handling of his unsworn statement from the dock, the evidential value of such a statement, effects of interruptions by the trial judge during the defence counsel's address to the jury, the permissibility of allowing the minor virtual complainant to testify on oath under Section 38(1) of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court (Dominica) Act, and the application of the proviso and whether the case warrants a retrial.

The evidence led in Court by the State during the trial in 2015 was that on four different occasions between January 1, 2013, and August 29 2013, the Senhouse called the victim into his home, where he engaged in sexual conduct with her. The minor girl testified that on the last occasion, her mother met her at the appellant's home, and it was then that she told her mother what had occurred on the three previous occasions. She said she did not report the incidents to anyone previously because of the threats of physical harm made to her by the appellant.

The virtual complainant's mother showed that she met the virtual complainant in the appellant's home with him one day. She said that, in the presence of the appellant, the virtual complainant told her what transpired between them on that day. She took the virtual complainant to a health centre and then to the Portsmouth Police Station, where the matter was reported.

Senhouse denied the allegations against him. On November 24 2015, the appellant was found guilty of the offences of buggery, unlawful sexual intercourse and indecent assault. On December 11 2015, the late Justice Errol Thomas sentenced him to 25 years imprisonment for the offence of buggery, 25 years imprisonment for the offence of unlawful sexual intercourse and ten years imprisonment for the offence of unlawful assault, with the two 25-year sentences to run concurrently, but consecutively with the 10-year sentence.

On the same day of his sentence, Stenhouse filed an appeal against his conviction and sentence, which was heard on May 8, 2023. The ruling of the Court, penned by The Hon. Mr. Mario Michel and supported by Hon. Mde. Vicki-Ann Ellis and Justice of Appeal the Hon. Mr. Gerard St.C Farara, upheld the appeal, quashing the convictions, setting aside the sentences, and ordering that the appellant be discharged.

In the ruling, the appeal judge averred that a trial judge must refrain from presenting an unbalanced summation to the jury and not embellish a case for either the prosecution or the defence. The Court is urged to consider the trial judge's summation as a whole in determining whether this was done.

"In this case, the trial judge explicitly told the jury that they ought not to give much consideration to the delay in the investigative process when this was indeed part of the appellant's case. This statement by the trial judge was improper. It amounted to an irregularity, on the basis of which ground 1 of the appeal is allowed. This finding, however, is not sufficient on its own for a finding that the appellant's trial was unfair."

Under Section 30 of the Sexual Offences Act, a trial judge may permit cross-examination of a complainant on previous sexual history if necessary for a fair trial. In this case, however, the questions weren't about the complainant's credibility but aimed at Senhouse's guilt or innocence. They referenced a medical examination form linked to another individual prosecuted for similar offences against the complainant, which was relevant to Senhouse's defence. Hence, Ground 2 of the appeal was upheld.

Another upheld ground was the limitation of the accused's right to give an unsworn statement from the dock to its relevance. Stenhouse's relevant defence was hindered as the trial judge interrupted his statement, with even permitted parts discredited in the judge's summation to the jury. Failure to allow the complete statement impeded the appellant's defence from reaching the jury adequately. Hence, Grounds 3 and 8 of the appeal are upheld. Additionally, while a medical report isn't legally required for prosecuting a sexual offence, the appeal judges noted that no such report was presented at the appellant's trial. Yet, a witness mentioned a medical form and examination unrelated to the charges, which the judge failed to address. This, combined, rendered the appellant's trial unfair. Hence, Ground 9 is allowed.

However, one of the grounds for appeal was contested, as the judge questioned whether the judicial interventions in a criminal trial had led to the defendant's trial becoming unfair. The crucial assessment Justice Michel noted lies in determining if these interventions denied the accused a fair trial based on their qualitative impact on the trial process. In this instance, he found no evidence to suggest that the judge's interruptions of counsel during her address to the jury impeded the advancement of the appellant's defence. Furthermore, these interruptions do not imply bias that would result in an unfair trial. Hence, Ground 4 of the appeal is dismissed.

Moreover, in the opinion of the Court, a minor in respect of whom an offence is alleged to have been committed against may testify under oath if they comprehend its nature. A belief in God and understanding the significance of the divine sanction serve as a reasonable indicator of oath comprehension. In this instance, the virtual complainant demonstrated the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood and expressed awareness of divine consequences for lying. She acknowledged her duty to truthfully recount the events in Court, indicating an understanding of the solemnity of the proceedings. Thus, Ground 5 of the appeal is dismissed.

Consequently, the Court found that based on the overall conduct of the trial by the learned judge, it could not safely be said that there was no miscarriage of justice. "Therefore, the proviso ought not be applied and the appellant's appeal should be allowed and his conviction and sentence quashed."

The test for deciding whether to order a retrial was examined, and the appeal judges concluded that justice would likely not be served to either party with a retrial. Given the 11-year gap between the offences, the potential trial date, and the appellant's over eight years spent in prison since conviction in 2015, a new trial is deemed unnecessary.

"The incidents leading to the appellant's arrest, charge, trial, conviction and sentence occurred in 2013 when the virtual complainant was eight. She is now a young adult aged between 18 and 19 years old. The appellant, who would have been 49 years old at the time of the offence, is between 59 and 60. Justice will probably not be served to either of them if they, and their families, have to relive the sordid events which occurred on these four occasions between January and August 2013." The sentence of 60 years imprisonment was further deemed "severe and excessive" in this case's circumstances. Hence, the appeal was allowed, the conviction was quashed, the sentences were set aside, and the appellant was discharged.