BELIZE CITY, Wed. May 10, 2017–Belize City-based Magistrate Norman Rodriguez became the first judicial officer to be charged with a criminal offense in the history of Belize’s post-independence judiciary.
This morning, Rodriguez appeared before Chief Magistrate Ann Marie Smith, who read a single count of rape to him. Before a packed courtroom, Rodriguez, dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt and necktie, sat looking tense, avoiding eye contact with several reporters in the courtroom.
After some minor charges were read to several accused persons, suddenly, Chief Magistrate Smith said, “Stand up, Mr. Rodriguez.”
Rodriguez did not hear the Magistrate’s order to stand up, so Chief Magistrate Smith uttered the order once more: “Stand up, Mr. Rodriguez.”
After Rodriguez was on his feet, the Chief Magistrate read a charge of rape to him. There was no need for the Chief Magistrate to explain to Rodriguez, a qualified attorney — whose arraignment was dealt with by four defense attorneys, including senior counsel Hubert Elrington, and attorney Herbert Panton, his lead counsel, and female attorneys Kathleen Lewis and Michelle Trapp-Zuniga, a legal aid attorney — that the matter is indictable. The case will be heard in the Southern Session of the Supreme Court in Dangriga, where a jury of 9 will decide his innocence or guilt.
Court prosecutor, Inspector Egbert Castillo, did not object to the court granting bail to Magistrate Rodriguez, and Chief Magistrate Smith set bail for her subordinate at $1,000 plus one surety in the same amount.
The Chief Magistrate, however, asked Rodriguez to surrender his travel documents to the Dangriga Magistrate’s Court and ordered him not to leave the country without the permission of the court. He is also not to apply for any new travel document.
After his arraignment, as an officer of the court, Rodriguez was offered the necessary courtesy of not having to leave the courtroom to sign his bail papers. Rodriguez’s entrance was carefully planned to hide him from the media’s cameras. He was allowed to enter the courtroom through the kitchen entrance, on the southern side of the building. It was perhaps the first time that that door was used for an accused person to access the court.
The alleged rape for which Magistrate Rodriguez is charged, according to the court record, occurred on Friday, April 20, and not on Tuesday, April 11, as had been initially reported across the various media outlets. He is accused of the rape of his former common-law wife, a 27-year-old Dangriga woman, who reported to Dangriga police, and also told reporters from three media houses, including Amandala, that Rodriguez forced himself on her when she visited his Dangriga house during working hours on the date of the alleged incident.
None of Magistrate Rodriguez’s attorneys made any comment to reporters, and the magistrate, after his arraignment, became involved in a cat and mouse game of hiding inside the court building for more than an hour after he was free to leave.
Reports emerging from inside the building placed him at one point inside the administrative office of the Clerk of Courts, whom he reportedly told that he would report to work tomorrow, Thursday, since he had not received any instructions to the contrary from the Judicial Services and Legal Commission.
After that, he was reportedly sitting down inside the kitchen in the hopes of waiting out the camera crews who had taken up positions all around the court building. He eventually moved to the Chief Magistrate’s office, where he spent a few minutes before placing himself at the front of the main entrance of the courtroom on the Regent Street side.
After he was there for a few minutes, the main entrance door was closed and Rodriguez, presumably getting information about the location of camera crews, suddenly emerged from the main doors on the Regent Street side of the court, and quickly jumped into a burgundy car that had pulled up at the front of the building.
And as he was driven away, he missed the opportunity to put his best face forward, even if it was only to emphasize his innocence or to express faith in the integrity of the judicial system of which he is part.
Rodriguez’s case was adjourned to August 10, when he is expected in the Dangriga Magistrate’s Court, where disclosure is to be given to his lead attorney, Herbert Panton. The preliminary inquiry is scheduled for August 24.
Although it is a paper committal, this does not prevent Rodriguez’s attorneys from making submissions to strike out the matter at that stage. If it is determined during the preliminary inquiry that there is a prima facie case against him, the case will be committed for trial at the Supreme Court.