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IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST: Purge system of dead weight

ROY R. MORRIS, [email protected]

IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST: Purge system of dead weight

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TOO OFTEN ONE CAN’T HELP but get the impression that we are unnecessarily cruel toward each other, both at the individual and community level. The on-going failures of our criminal justice system only serve to confirm this in my mind.

Last week I dealt with one aspect of this largely dysfunctional system, but today I want to show just how it unfairly impacts on individuals, especially those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.

Here’s the case of DS, now 52 years old, a customs guard with the Customs and Excise Department, who has been on suspension from January 2006 after being charged in relation to the alleged importation of marijuana from Trinidad in a used car engine.

I can’t say if he is innocent or guilty, and quite frankly that is not relevant in the context of this article. However, he did present his story to me in a very thorough and sincere manner and stood up to my interrogation.

On Wednesday, January 18, 2006, he was a guard assigned to clear FedEx packages at Terminal 2, Grantley Adams International Airport. During the course of the day, he said, he was asked by a friend who also worked with airline catering at the airport to assist him in clearing the engine because the broker he asked was charging too much.

No problem

While he had no problem doing it for the friend, he said he pointed out to him he was at the FedEx facility at Sheraton Centre and it would have to wait until he went to the airport to handle the flight that was due to arrive that afternoon. While still at Sheraton, he said, a messenger delivered the documents and $1 500 to him and “I explained to the guy it would have to wait until I went to clear the FedEx plane”.

DS said he got to the airport around 12:30 p.m., performed normal duties and since there was some time before the plane was due to arrive, he decided to sort out the engine for the friend. He took the documents to BWIA’s cargo shed, then to customs where they calculated the duty, which along with fees, added up to $1 250.

He returned to the BWIA shed and handed over the papers to shed supervisor David Goring, now deceased, who did his processing before giving them to the customs officer there. She made her checks and passed them to the clerk, who then retrieved the cargo from “stacking” for inspection. The customs officer completed her task, applied her signature and gave him the documents to return to the shed supervisor, who instructed him to sign the C65 release form.

“I signed it and left it with him, telling him that someone will come to pick it up as I had done what I had promised to do — just clear it. I did not import it. I did not buy it. It was not consigned to me. All I know is that it was an engine because I saw it,” DS said.

He completed his airport duties and returned to the FedEx facility at Sheraton, where he was told around 3:30 p.m. he had to return to the airport to clear another FedEx flight. That aircraft was delayed, he said, so he left to collect his stepdaughter from school and also sign a condolence book for a neighbour’s daughter who was buried that same evening at St Martin’s Anglican Church.

Called over

The aircraft had just landed when he got back to the airport, he said, and was about to be cleared when a customs enforcement officer called him over, showed him the documents he had signed for the engine, and asked him what he knew about the shipment. He said he told him he had cleared it for a friend, and he left it with the understanding that someone would pick it up for the importer.

“He informed me they had an interest in the said item and they were going to do an inspection and I should stick around,” he recalled.

The engine was broken down, he said, and vegetable matter believed to be marijuana was found in the tappet cover. Further separation of engine parts revealed more drugs, and the assistance of a LIAT engineer was solicited for even further dismantling of parts, which turned up more drugs. In all they found 17 packages in the engine, he recalled, which together weighed 11 and a half pounds and were valued at $90 000.

“Around 8:45 they handed me over to police, who took me to Oistins Station where I spent three days,” DS said. “I went to court the Friday and the magistrate remanded me to prison until the following Tuesday to appear at Boarded Hall Magistrate’s Court.”

His lawyer at the time, Michael Lashley, applied for bail, which was granted at $75 000. He was placed on an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and ordered to surrender his passport and report to the police station every Monday, Wednesday and Friday before 10 a.m.

Conflict of interest

His next court appearance was on March 28, 2006 and for five years he kept going to court at the appointed time, but nothing happened. Then District “B” magistrate Robert Simmons retired and in June 2011 it was transferred to District “F” before Magistrate Laurie-Ann Smith-Bovell. It remained at District “F” until a conflict of interest was declared in December 2011.

His next hearing was in February 2012 before then Chief Magistrate Pamela Beckles at the Oistins Magistrate Court. It spent three years at Oistins in preliminary hearing before it was sent up to the Supreme Court, where DS made his first appearance on January 23, 2015.

Since his arrest, one of four men jointly charged with DS has died, and according to him, the matter at the high court has been stuck apparently because one of the accused cannot be located by police.

“That’s what the prosecutor told the court. But he is the man who asked me to clear the engine for him. He lives five minutes from me in St Philip and I see him regularly. He does work repairing and building houses for [a government agency] and he is married to the niece of [a prominent politician],” he said.

“You want to tell me how they can’t find him, but three days a week for ten years I have been going to the police station because I am so frighten that if I miss just one day they will come and pick me up and send me to Dodds. You think this is fair?”

The last time he went to the high court, he said, was March 23 last year and he was the only one of the three remaining accused who turned up. Since his current lawyer, Arthur Holder, was engaged in another court he was asked to wait outside until called.

Ten minutes after Holder arrived, he recalled, a court marshal came out to him and told him that prosecutor Elwood Watts had sent a message that “I could go home and when they are ready for me they will call me”.

10 years and nine months

Nineteen months later he has not heard back from the court. Ten years and nine months, four magistrates, one judge, nine prosecutors and three lawyers later, after being charged for a drug offence DS is still waiting to clear his name. He remains suspended on half pay, all of which goes directly to the City of Bridgetown Credit Union to satisfy his mortgage and car loan [which he had to be renegotiate to avoid losing], while depending on a generous neighbour who offers him one meal a day and occasionally valeting cars and doing other odd jobs to make ends meet.

“I still lay on my bed and cry,” he said. “This can’t be fair. I have ulcers and can’t afford to eat the way the doctor told me to. I am sure if this case had been heard I would have been found not guilty… but all this time it just dragging on and on and dragging me down and down. But the man who import the engine living good because of his connections.”

DS confessed there had been rumours he had assisted people who worked on the ramp at the airport to import drugs, but denied they were true.

$3 000 to $4 000 in overtime

“Those were the good old days when you could make $3 000 or $4 000 a month in overtime, and I never used to drink or smoke and didn’t need five or six women like some other people. But once you start to move ahead in this country people always think you doing something illegal, but I have all my receipts to show how I got my house and car.”

As I said at the start, I can’t say if DS is guilty or innocent, but I know that there is something fundamentally wrong with a system that would subject a citizen to a ten-year wait for a trial on a drug offence like this. If he had been found guilty back in 2006 he would have long completed his sentence and moved on with his life. The system has already imposed an open sentence on him that is ten years old and counting.

Now I dare anyone to tell me our criminal justice system is not in need of urgent attention. If it is necessary people, just purge it. Reform the laws and get rid of the dead weight!