IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST: The Dick Walcott approach to justice
I SUSPECT I was having one of those days we all have from time to time. One when you wake up with a song on your mind, a poem you learnt decades earlier, a distant memory or a thought of some person who touched your life in some way – and try as you might, you can’t shake it from your head.
For some strange reason I woke up yesterday morning thinking about our criminal justice system and there was this cartoon-like bubble floating above my head with a mathematical formula which appeared to be saying there was more criminal in the term than justice.
Then I recalled my early days as a reporter covering the Magistrates’ Court in Bridgetown. At the time the court on the far right was the Traffic Court, presided over by then Chief Magistrate Frank King. That on the far left was the Criminal Court where Ambrose “Dick” Walcott, now deceased, was in charge in every sense of the word; while the Civil Court was in the middle, I believe, presided over by Charles Harris, also dearly departed.
When I started court coverage I was told all kinds of stories of how “Dick Walcott” ruled his court and over the years had quite a few experiences myself. There was this Saturday morning when I was covering court and Walcott arrived just short of 10 o’clock wearing some muddy boots and dirty short pants and shirt.
He immediately took his position on the bench and declared in the voice that oozed annoyance and misery, that he was tired of having to interrupt his Saturday morning gardening to come to court, and he was therefore in no mood for time-wasting. He further announced he would be lenient with anyone who pleaded guilty, but anybody who pleaded not guilty and then he found them guilty, he was sending them straight to Glendairy Prison, regardless of the offence.
For today’s reporters, lawyers, magistrates, police officers, accused, court workers and members of the public who know only of missing files, disclosures that are delayed for three or four years and individual cases being adjourned for as much as half a decade, this was a time when cases started and ended the same day, or at worst took only few appearances to arrive at a conclusion.
Having made his position clear, the prosecutor called his first case, which immediately elicited
a guilty plea. And so it was for the next 45 minutes or so. Guilty sir! Guilty sir! Guilty sir! As abruptly as court started it ended, with the magistrate grumbling his way into the back room, and presumably back to his garden.
On another occasion the prosecutor read out at least 20 charges that included breaking and theft by a City character. The final charge involved sacrilege – breaking into St Michael’s Cathedral and removing sacred items. I recall the accused pleading guilty to all except the final one, because the testy magistrate intervened and said words to the effect:
“Mr Prosecutor, you know how many ‘wuffless’ people dey got in de church doing all kinds of wrong? Man let this one go (a reference to the last charge).”
The diligent prosecutor protested, to which Magistrate Walcott told him if he insisted, he would dismiss all the other charges and let him proceed with the sacrilege matter. The prosecutor quickly relented.
I’m not so sure such practices would be tolerated in today’s court, given the strong characters who now occupy the Bar table, and when we (former court reporters) get together and romanticised these stories of our experiences, a more analytical examination would suggest that in too many instances back then, outcomes appeared to have been heavily influenced by the capricious side of presiding officers.
But I am wondering if we took today’s deficient, delay-ridden court system and asked all those accused who have been hanging in limbo for years if they would opt for the Dick Walcott approach of a guilty plea
in exchange for a slap on the wrist and live with a conviction on their record, what would they decide?
I don’t know, it seems like heads you lose, tails you lose.