BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Apr. 12, 2018– Japhet Bennett, 25, who was convicted in February 2013 of the September 9, 2009 murder of Ellis “Pepper Gacho” Meighan, 37, and who is serving a life sentence, appeared in the Supreme Court for a teleconference hearing at the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) yesterday, in the appeal of his conviction and life sentence.
After hearing submissions from Bennett’s attorney, Anthony Sylvestre, and Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Cheryl-Lynn Vidal, S.C., the CCJ has reserved its judgment for a date to be announced shortly.
At Bennett’s trial in 2013 before Justice Adolph Lucas, a jury returned a guilty of murder verdict. The key evidence against Bennett came in the form of a statement that was made by Marlon Milton, a brother-in-law of Meighan, the murdered man. At the trial, Milton was declared a hostile witness, but the statement that he had given to police was admitted into evidence.
Bennett appealed his conviction and sentence to the Belize Court of Appeal, but he was unsuccessful. He was, however, successful in getting leave to appeal to the CCJ as a destitute person.
In his submission, Sylvestre told the panel of judges at the CCJ that “the applicant wages three grounds of appeal that there was a miscarriage of justice at the Supreme Court,” because a statement that should have been excluded was admitted into evidence against him. The statement, Sylvestre submitted, was prejudicial to the accused and had put him at an unfair disadvantage.
The statement by Marlon Milton said that around 8:40 p.m. on the night of the murder, he was riding his bicycle on Central American Boulevard when he heard three gunshots.
In the statement, Milton said, “Just at that junction of Banak Street, I saw a male person was lying down on the sidewalk, on the same right-hand side of the Boulevard on this junction with Banak Street, and at the same time I saw that there was another male person who was standing over this male person who was lying on the sidewalk.”
Sylvestre told the court “the witness had repudiated the statement so that it was impracticable, it was not possible for him to be cross-examined in terms of those material details.”
Sylvester submitted: “There is no indication as to why the witness repudiated the statement. There is nothing in the evidence that lends and influences to one view or the other. So, that being the state of affairs, we respectfully submit that in the circumstances it would have been incumbent on the learned trial judge to have exercised his discretion to exclude the statement. If that statement would have been properly excluded, what would have happened is that there would not be any evidence to ground the conviction.”
“In the circumstances, a submission of ‘no-case-to-answer’ ought to have been upheld,” Sylvestre told the court.
DPP Vidal submitted, “This witness actually said that he heard the gunshots, he reasoned the direction from which the gunshots would have been coming from and he rode towards the sound of the gunshots. This was not a person who heard gunshots, realized that there was some danger afoot and so decided to stay away. This was a person who rode towards the sound of a gunshot, then saw a person lying on the ground, saw an individual standing over him with a firearm, and continued to look. He was able to go on to see not only the clothes that were being worn, not only the description of the handgun, the hand in which it was being held, but also when that individual moved from over the body, got unto a bicycle and then rode away from the body and joined another person. And then he was able to see as well the direction in which they went.”
The CCJ will determine whether Bennett’s murder conviction will be upheld or quashed, and also, if his conviction stands, whether his life in prison sentence is valid. Based on the precedent that the CCJ has set in the Gregory August appeal, when it accepted the Belize Court of Appeal ruling that life in prison without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional, it would appear that Bennett has a fair chance of winning this appeal and getting a fixed date sentence.