No eyewitness testimony, no forensic evidence, equaled a murder acquittal; lack of police professionalism wrecked the case
BELIZE CITY, Wed. Feb.14, 2018– This morning, in a case which highlights some of the shortcomings of the criminal justice system, with its archaic dependence on witness testimony and an absence of scientific and forensic evidence, a man who was accused of an apparently senseless, fatal shooting walked out of the Supreme Court of Justice Adolph Lucas a free man.
On the night of Thursday, May 10, 2012, Jason Canto was at Dales Barbershop along with the businessman Jose Shoman when, around 7:50 p.m., two men entered the barbershop from a side entrance. The men were armed with handguns and they immediately began firing.
Shoman, who was in the barber chair and was armed with his licensed 9mm Glock pistol, returned fire, and the men ran out of the barbershop.
When the gunfire ceased, Jason Canto was lying on the floor, face up, dead. Canto had been shot a number of times in the body. The barber, Ariel Pelayo, had been shot in the leg.
Outside the barbershop police found a handgun, apparently dropped by one of the two shooters. A trail of red substance, suspected to be blood, led police to an abandoned house on Bishop Street. Under the house, police found Norman Slusher, 28, suffering from gunshot wounds.
Slusher begged the police, they said, to take him to the hospital after admitting that he and “Angel” had carried out the shooting at the barbershop.
Police eventually charged Slusher for Canto’s murder. His alleged partner, “Angel,” was never apprehended.
As the trial without jury got under way before Justice Lucas, the Crown, represented by Crown Counsel Janelle Tillett, made many attempts to get the businessman, Jose Shoman, to come to court to testify. But all attempts to reach Shoman proved futile.
The trial slipped into a voir dire on the third day when Slusher’s attorney, Simeon Sampson, SC, challenged a verbal statement that Slusher had purportedly given to a police officer on the night of the shooting.
Slusher had begged the police to call an ambulance for him, because, as the police said he told them, “I don’t want to die.” He also promised to give the police an AK-47 assault rifle.
Justice Lucas, when he issued his ruling on the submissions made during the voir dire, ruled that the verbal statement made by Slusher could be admitted into the prosecution’s evidence against him.
With that secured, Crown Counsel Tillett made an application to have the statement given by Shoman, admitted into evidence.
There was, however, a deficiency in the statement that Shoman had given, and Tillett ran into a legal hurdle that was impossible to overcome.
Shoman’s statement was not witnessed by a Justice of the Peace or a magistrate, which is a requirement under the Evidence Act, which stipulates that before the court can accept a statement as evidence, it has to be signed by a Justice of the Peace or a magistrate.
So when Tillett’s application to have the statement be admitted ran into that legal hurdle, she was left with no choice but to withdraw the application. So, without Shoman and without Shoman’s statement, the prosecution was forced to close its case.
In addition, the other witness, the barber Ariel Pelayo, who was inside the barber shop when the shooting began, according to the Crown, had passed away a while ago, but the Crown was unable to prove that Pelayo was indeed dead. None of his family members wanted to take the witness stand to confirm that he was indeed dead, and so, his statement was unusable.
That left the Crown with only the oral statement that the accused had given to police.
There was no attempt to introduce forensic evidence in the trial. Evidence such as the gun that was found at the scene of the shooting, or the slugs that were taken out of Canto’s body that were handed over to the scenes of crime technician Brian Lopez, by the police pathologist, Dr. Mario Estradabran, were not used.
Additionally, Amandala has learned that Shoman was given back his firearm, so even that was not available to the prosecution. It is not known, however, how Shoman managed to get back so critical a piece of evidence in a murder trial.
When the Crown was forced to close its case, the defense made a no-case-to-answer submission.
Sampson told the court, “There was no incriminating evidence found in the possession of the accused, by way of establishing in whose hands was the weapon which was discharged and consequently caused the death of Jason Canto.”
Crown Counsel Tillett was undaunted by the defense’s no-case submission. “The Crown submits that there is evidence which implicates this accused for the crime of murder of Jason Canto.
“The Crown is relying on circumstantial evidence to prove that the accused inflicted the harm to Jason Canto. The evidence for the Crown is that at 7:50 p.m. on Thursday, May 10, 2012, Inspector Ismael Westby, Corporal Mariano Chun, and Brian Lopez, scenes of crime technician, responded to a shooting at Dale’s Barber Shop, located on West Canal, Belize City,” Tillett submitted.
Tillett further explained to the court that upon arrival at the scene, both Westby and Lopez canvassed the surrounding area. Both witnesses testified to seeing live rounds and expended shells inside the barbershop. Both witnesses testified to seeing a black 9mm pistol on the sidewalk, in front of the barbershop.
Tillett said both witnesses testified to seeing a red substance, which appeared to be blood, on Bishop Street. Corporal Chun testified that upon following the red substance, he was led to an abandoned house on Bishop Street, where he saw the accused moving from side to side. He was wearing only a pair of boxers. The accused told Corporal Chun: “Officer, I get shot on my belly and in my leg. Please help me call an ambulance. I noh waahn dead. I could tell you what happened. Me and Angel gone do the shooting at the barbershop.”
Tillett submitted that after the accused told Corporal Chun that he had gone to do the shooting at the barbershop, the corporal cautioned him and read him his constitutional rights.
The inference can be drawn that the barbershop in which the accused admitted to carrying out the shooting, was the same barbershop in which Jason Canto was killed, she said.
Tillett went on to submit that the Crown was relying on circumstantial evidence, because the accused himself had admitted to doing the shooting at the barbershop. “The Crown submits that there is circumstantial evidence to establish a prima facie case against the accused man. All the evidence points in one direction and that is toward the accused. At the time when the accused inflicted the unlawful harm, he had intention to kill. The deceased died from the gunshot wounds. A gun was found in front of the barbershop. The Crown submits that the deceased died from gunshot wounds to his body. So, My Lord, those pieces of evidence combined shows that the accused inflicted the unlawful harm to the deceased,” she said.
Justice Lucas told Tillett that she needed to address the question of joint enterprise, and that she had to show the role of each, even though the other person was not before the court.
“So, that is the importance of your two witnesses, who are not here, so that they could tell us what happened. No prima facie evidence was established by the Crown that the death was caused by unlawful harm,” Justice Lucas said.
Justice Lucas then asked Tillett why she was trying so hard to have Jose Shoman’s and the barber’s statements admitted into evidence.
Tillett replied that both statements would have indicated that there were two gunmen firing shots in the barbershop, and one person fired back. “What we have is a confession from the accused that he was shooting in the barbershop”, she said.
Justice Lucas told Tillett that it is the duty of the Crown to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the force used was unlawful.
“In this case, the shooting was unlawful. You needed Shoman to come and tell us what happened there. Mr. Shoman, on the face of it, would have proven how this thing happened. There is no circumstantial evidence. Even if a man intends to kill and he justifies his killing, it is not murder. The burden is on the Crown to prove all of the elements of the offence,” Justice Lucas said.
Justice Lucas told Tillett, “You needed Shoman. There is nothing where the unlawful harm is concerned.”
Justice Lucas decided that he would give his ruling right away, and stated, “Having heard the submission of the defense counsel and the reply of the Crown, there is an element, that is unlawful harm, that has not been proven on a prima facie level. Unlawful harm is a very important element. If the case had gone to the jury, that is me, and my function as jury, I would have been required to address myself that the element must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. At this stage, it must be proven on a prima facie level. If there is no evidence to prove an essential element of the offence, a submission of no case [to answer] must obviously succeed…
…the element of unlawful harm has not been proven on a prima facie standard; therefore the accused has no case to answer. Inevitably, I find the accused not guilty of murder.”