In second trial, prosecution failed to prove that the three men murdered ex-BDF James Noralez in 2012
BELIZE CITY, Fri. July 27, 2018– This afternoon, in the Supreme Court of Justice Colin Williams, three men: Tyrone Meighan, 24; Brandon Baptist, 29; and Orel Leslie, 29; were found not guilty of the November 2012 murder of ex-Belize Defence Force soldier James Noralez, 28.
The not-guilty-of-murder verdicts came two hours and fifteen minutes after Justice Williams painstakingly read his judgment, highlighting the shortcomings of the prosecution’s circumstantial case against the accused men and characterizing its key witnesses as being “unreliable, unbelievable” and its main witness as having an interest to protect and as someone who clearly “struggled with the truth.”
The three accused men were previously tried before now-retired Supreme Court justice, John “Troadio” Gonzalez, who had accepted no case-to-answer submissions from the men’s attorneys and had acquitted them of the murder indictments in October 2015.
The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, however, appealed Gonzalez’s acquittal decisions and when the case was heard by the Court of Appeal in March 2017, the acquittal was set aside and a new trial ordered.
So, after Meighan and Leslie had enjoyed 17 months of freedom following the conclusion of the Court of Appeal hearing, Gang Suppression Unit (GSU) policemen took Meighan and Leslie back to prison to await a new trial. Baptist had remained on remand for another murder.
An appeal by the men for special leave to appeal to Belize’s highest court, the Caribbean Court of Justice, was dismissed last July, when the court affirmed the Court of Appeal decision to set aside the acquittal and proceed with the new trial.
Today, Justice Williams began reading from his judgment that, “Sometime around 7:00 p.m. on Friday, November 23, 2012, police from the Queen Street Police Station journeyed to Fabers Road Extension, in response to a report of a body on the side of the road. The police team included investigators and the scenes of crime technicians. They arrived on the scene about 7:30 p.m., where there was a lifeless body of a person of Creole descent. That body was identified as that of James Noralez. His body had what appeared to be multiple gunshot injuries to the upper part of the body and to the head…”
“Within an hour after the shooting, police picked up multiple suspects and executed two search warrants. Among the persons detained during the course of the investigation were the three defendants, Meighan, Baptist and Leslie…the prosecution main witness, Aaron Paquil, as well as other persons who did not feature in this trial. The police, at the time of detaining the persons, had no admissible evidence against anyone,” Justice Williams said.
“The following day after the shooting, a policeman, Jefferson Dawson, of Fabers Road, gave a statement at the police station, saying he was in the area of the shooting and identified Aaron Paquil as being in a black vehicle that drove away from the scene shortly after the shooting,” summarized Justice Williams.
It was noted that Paquil also gave a statement to police, in which he said that his cousin, James Noralez, left Leslie’s home on Linda Vista Street in the company of the three accused to buy drinks.
Paquil told police that the vehicle, which was driven by Baptist, returned without his cousin and Meighan.
By Sunday, November 25, police had charged the three accused for the murder of James Noralez.
“The Crown has established the following elements to prove that the defendants are guilty of the murder of James Noralez. One, that James Noralez is dead. Two, that his death was caused by unlawful harm. Three, that whoever caused Noralez’s death had an intention to kill him. Four, that it was Brendon Baptist, Orel Leslie and Tyrone Meighan, jointly or singly, who intentionally and unlawfully inflicted the unlawful harm, causing James Noralez’s death,” said Justice Williams.
Justice Williams went on to say that the Crown was alleging that on some unspecified date, the defendants agreed to kill Noralez.
“There is no direct evidence in this case that the defendants killed Noralez; neither was there any direct evidence that there was any such plan. What the Crown is relying on is circumstantial evidence to prove its case,” Justice Williams noted.
Justice Williams explained that in circumstantial cases, all the strands of evidence, when woven together, must prove the guilt or innocence of the accused. The judge also explained that an accused person does not have to prove anything.
Before delving into the evidence of the Crown’s witnesses, Justice Williams explained that he would evaluate each witness, how they appeared, their demeanor, and so forth.
The first witness to take the stand was the retired scenes of crime technician Audrey Cleland.
On the night of the murder, Cleland had arrived on the crime scene and spoke to Inspector of Police Santiago Ciaul, after which she processed the scene.
Justice Williams said there were aspects of Cleland’s testimony that were cause for concern. The judge said that Cleland’s testimony was undermined significantly because the number of pictures she said she took from the crime scene and printed was not presented.
“The witness displayed a less than cooperative attitude and demeanor, and seemed unwilling to give truthful answers to the court…she was notably uncomfortable and hesitant…,” said Justice Williams.
One key prosecution witness was the then Inspector Santiago Ciau, who is now a police superintendent.
The shooting occurred in the vicinity of his house and he and his son, who is also a police officer, were the first persons on the scene.
There appeared to be, however, a number of discrepancies in the testimony of Ciau. Ciau had taken over the investigation from Corporal Chun, who had testified that he saw a black sedan-type car leaving the scene of the shooting and heading toward Belize City.
Under cross-examination, Ciau’s claim was seriously challenged and was found to be inconsistent in many respects. He admitted to having altered his initial statement upon the advice of the DPP.
Justice Williams noted that there was “a number of troubling aspects” to Ciau’s testimony. The judge did not believe that Ciau could have identified the black car in the night with the poor lighting condition of the area.
“ASP Ciau’s testimony was shredded under cross-examination. Not only was it established that he altered the facts of the statement upon instruction, but seemed to struggle between truth and the altered version. His testimony cannot be believed with regard to where he was on the night of the incident. He admittedly corrected things from his statement upon direction from the Director of Public Prosecutions, who, he said, told him to do so. Clearly, his evidence was doctored in part, to place him at home and to be able to hear, see and do certain things,” Justice Williams said.
Aaron Paquil, the Crown’s main witness, was living at his mother’s Mahogany Street address at the time of the murder in 2012. James Noralez is Paquil’s cousin.
When the trial began, Senior Crown Counsel Sheiniza Smith, who led the Crown’s evidence, had difficulties in locating Paquil, and had to ask Justice Williams to issue a bench warrant for him, because he did not appear in court when he was summoned to do so.
Eventually, Paquil made his appearance and took the witness stand.
Paquil testified that on the night of the murder, they were all hanging out at Leslie’s Linda Vista Street home, smoking marijuana and drinking, and then they ran out of drinks and the deceased and the accused went in a black Honda Accord car that was being driven by Baptist to buy drinks.
Paquil told the court that they were all friends who grew up in the neighborhood.
Paquil testified that there were two groups of men in the yard at the time Baptist pulled up in the black Honda Accord car, which he said was “hot” (stolen), but no one paid any attention to Baptist.
When the drinks ran out, everyone in the yard began picking up empty bottles to fill two beer crates. According to Paquil, before they left in the car, Tyrone Meighan blurted out, “a got mi thing right here. [he was referring to a gun].” Then Leslie shouted out, “a got my thing too, ah pack-up”. He then pulled out a 9mm black handgun, said Paquil.
“All of us were friends, we know each other’s dirty secrets. We did things together. All of us, including me, had that gun [he was referring to a .32 handgun]. It is not the first time I have seen the gun. I am familiar with the gun,” Paquil testified.
Paquil told the court that after the vehicle had left, he noticed that “it was only me and Leon Burgess in the yard; everyone else had gone.”
Paquil said that he then suggested to Burgess (now deceased) that they go and buy some marijuana at Michael Godoy’s home.
Paquil said that when the black car returned, he was seated on the fence at Leslie’s yard, and he testified that he saw Leslie jump out of the car. He said that Leslie appeared frightened and was only wearing his boxer shorts. He just ran past Burgess and him (Paquil) into the house without telling them anything. Upon the return of the car, Tyrone Meighan was not in it, and James Noralez was not in it, Paquil testified.
Shortly after Baptist had driven off in the car, after they had spent a minute or two in front of Leslie’s house, a police F150 pickup truck pulled up and took the men into custody.
While they were being taken to the police station, Leslie kept telling Burgess, “Dibo [nickname for Tyrone Meighan] do lone rass, ih never had to kill the man,” Paquil said in his testimony.
In his testimony, Paquil also told the court about an incident that occurred at the stand-pipe on Lacroix Boulevard and Linda Vista Street involving his cousin, James Noralez.
According to Paquil, Leslie approached Noralez and said, “boy, how I hear you di work fu the police? Once you di work fu the police, yu wan dead.”
Paquil testified that, in response, Noralez said, “you could believe whatever you want. In fact, just kill me, just kill me.”
Paquil said that he and Noralez began to walk in the direction of Police Street, when Michael Godoy, who was along with Leslie, blurted out, “all informa haffi dead.”
Paquil said that Godoy further said, “Boy, James, I know it’s you who sent dem GSU da mi yard, fu mek dem find the bullet and the weed ina the swamp back a mi house.”
Under cross-examination from attorney Bryan Neal, who represented Baptist, Paquil admitted to robbing people with guns, but said he never shot anyone before.
Later, referring to this statement by Paquil, Justice Williams, in reading his judgment, noted, “He [Paquil] said, however, that he was not a gunman, and he was not robbing people every day.”
Paquil said the police took him “to the Queen Street Police Station under investigation for murder.” “They took everyone. They never read me my rights,” he said.
“I understood I was a suspect for murder in the death of my cousin James Noralez,” Paquil testified.
Senior Counsel Ellis Arnold, who represented Orel Leslie, questioned Paquil about the use of the term “shatta.”
Paquil said he did not play that role, but he held several firearms.
Under cross-examination, Paquil admitted to being charged for several offences, including abetment to murder, but the case never made it to the Supreme Court.
Paquil was challenged by attorney Anthony Sylvestre, who represented Tyrone Meighan, about several inconsistencies in his testimony that were not in the statement he had given to police.
In assessing the testimony and demeanor of Paquil, Justice Williams said, “This witness appeared to be listening carefully to questions before answering, but for the most part, kept his gaze and focus away from everyone, being content to look into blank spaces. He did not inspire confidence.”
The judge, at the end of reading his judgment, called out each accused by name and told them that they were found not guilty of the murder and that they were free to go.