Features — 28 July 2018
All about their breed

Belizeans, knowing how eager local lawyers are to step up with their services to defend persons accused of violent crimes, had to be shocked when they learned that two men accused of the most horrific crime, murder, had languished in jail, did not have their cases heard, because no lawyer would defend them.

In his July 21 story (Amandala), Rowland Parks reported that he was told that “the accused men could not find attorneys to represent them, because ‘no one wanted the job, even if they were paying,’ and a murder trial cannot proceed without the accused person or persons being represented by counsel.”

Mr. Parks said that the court had appointed “attorney Leroy Banner to represent Lopez Avila, and attorney Oscar Selgado to represent Maza,” they, Lopez Avila and Maza, being the two men accused of the murders. Belize is very familiar with Mr. Selgado because he once bragged that he had an unblemished record in murder cases. Hn.

Parks said that when the case was called up, Selgado was a no-show, and the judge, Justice Williams, “did not take kindly” to it. The judge was also concerned about “the fact that such a long time had elapsed before the case was brought to court…that this was an injustice to the accused, as well as to the families of the victims and the society at large.”

It is incredible that men accused of a crime remain on remand for such a long time. I have no knowledge of the case, but it is understood and accepted that an accused person deserves his day in court, without much delay, and that they are innocent until they are proved guilty.

I am certain that the families who suffered directly because of these horrific crimes, want the guilty party(ies) to be found out, and quite likely, dealt with. It’s a cold case if eight years later it is found out the accused are innocent. Then we have guilty parties roaming free for eight years, and a very, very slim chance that they will ever pay for their savage crimes.

It is fascinating, no, astounding, that our lawyers who so believe in the rights of the accused, refused to defend these men. They have told us, whenever we dare question them, about the righteousness of their profession, so we know it well. But one of the victims was one of theirs. So out goes the vaunted ethics. Of course we know why. It is because one of the victims was a lawyer.

They, lawyers, know that our system is not functioning as it should. It is so, so easy to win a not guilty verdict. The only way to punish a person they believe is guilty of murder, is to let them rot on remand.

Violent crime (murder) in Belize has been on a sorry trend, especially since we became an independent country in 1981. Once, we counted such crimes in units. Then we counted these crimes in tens. Now we count murders for the year, in hundred plus. The people have been crying out for years. The government’s ears seemed deaf. Then, after a long time, there was a tweak in our court system, after a lawyer was shot.

Rodwell Williams, a law partner of the present Prime Minister, was shot on June 1, 2010, for reasons not divulged. Of course, no one in our country is allowed to take the law into their hands. People shoot people for many reasons. Sometimes it is a simple misunderstanding of facts, or even mistaken identity.

The government responded to the Williams shooting by introducing trial without jury. In the Amandala of April 5, 2011, Daniel Ortiz reported in a story titled, “Barrow calls for trial without jury!”, that the Prime Minister, reacting to Chinese business people who had taken to the streets in anger over two Chinese women who had been slain on April 2, called a press conference “with the police ministry’s top brass, to announce to the nation, among other things, that he had decided to approach Cabinet to re-introduce provisions to change legislation to bring preventative detention laws into force.”

Ortiz wrote: “Probably the greatest surprise from the Prime Minister, however, was his statement that he is advocating removing trial by jury in cases of murder, and that he would quickly take it to Cabinet for discussion and approval.”

Surprise, surprise, the first case in which trial by judge, without jury, was executed, was the trial of Akeem Thurton, the accused in the Williams shooting. Channel Seven reported, on the night of March 30, 2012, that “Akeem Thurton, the man convicted of the attempted murder of attorney Rodwell Williams in the first trial without jury, is serving the first night of a 15-year sentence handed down by Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin.”

If we judge with our eyes, the way it appears, murder is run of the mill, old hat, it happens. Rank and file Belizeans, we regular folk, can drop like flies. But don’t touch a lawyer. In the tragic Stuart murders, the accused remained on remand for 8 years, because no lawyer would defend them.

It would be very weak to excuse this neglect of non-lawyer Belizeans with the argument that like naturally takes care of like. They, lawyers, cannot get away with that because they are so involved in our political system, so involved in the making of laws in our country. Disappointingly, when it comes to laws to combat crime, they don’t advocate with us, only within their group. This goes beyond unfair. This is cheating. Their obligation extends to the nation. We, the poorest of us, deserve the best that this country has to give.

We know what they teach young lawyers at school. Yay yeh, everyone is innocent until proven guilty, everyone deserves a lawyer. The ethics part, the human quality part, is entirely up to the individual.

If you don’t think, soul-search, then you will Nuremburg your way through life. We know that Mahatma Ghandi thought deeply about the issues that affected his country. Maybe we can’t expect every lawyer to have the human quality that Ghandi had. But you can’t be so blind that you cannot see that the system in which you operate is out of whack.

Braa, we have heard, from them, so much about the rights of the accused to a defense lawyer. But not when the victim is one of them!

In our system a man is innocent until he is proven guilty in a court. They advise us of that. Every man deserves a lawyer. They advise us of that too. And we give them no argument about those. But we have ideas to offer about improving the system, and we have questions.

We question how aggressively a lawyer can/should defend an accused that is a menace to the society. An ethical lawyer will not get up in court and throw the kitchen sink at the state and the state’s witnesses, when the accused is almost certainly guilty of the crime, or has been accused of such crimes before. Our country does not hang people anymore. True, it is a difficult thing to put a man in prison for a crime he might not have committed. But it is not like we are hanging the man. He still has a chance of proving his innocence.

When Sedi Elrington quit murder cases, he said it was because it was too easy to get his clients off. That was his little way to satisfy the little ethics within him. If he were an expansive man, and selfless, and brave, he would have made it his life’s work to improve our system of justice, so that murderers couldn’t pay their way out of guilt so easily.

You have to be blind to not see that a weak justice system produces a lawless society. In our country we are left with so many “what ifs.” IF we didn’t have this eye witness system that can’t produce an eye witness, this system that can only pin the crime on people who want to/don’t care if they are found guilty, our people might be more inclined to reason, than to use a gun.

But Elrington is just one of a hundred plus. Selgado is certainly prominent in the group. Apparently, none of his colleagues can see it fit to publicly rap his knuckles, call him out for his most outrageous statement (about his record in court) at this most outrageous, painful time in our country. I “pester” this gentleman with the simple hope of forcing a Damascus moment in him, and others of his breed.

On a normal day, nobody in Belize would complain about lawyers practicing and excelling at their craft. But we are not living in a normal day. We were once a peaceful haven. Now we are a sad, frightened country. And the people best equipped to find solutions, have low ethics. It serves their business purpose to blindly adore a blindfolded lady with unbalanced scales. She mulishly says no one is guilty of the crime.  And they agree with her, as long as the crime doesn’t touch one of their breed.

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Deshawn Swasey

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