Features — 25 April 2014 — by Audrey Matura-Shepherd

I pray many had a blessed Easter weekend and that in the midst of fun and relaxation that people kept in mind the reason for the season. It’s amazing for me how things have changed and that one of the most holy and reverent celebrations has been turned into a bramming and jamming session. Ironically many no longer want to keep the faith and believe that Jesus was born, crucified and rose again, yet they enjoy the holiday provided by law by said belief. I say if we are going to become pagan, then remove the holiday and let it be a regular work week … After all, Holy Week and Resurrection Sunday is not about Easter bunnies and eggs.

Interestingly, while our Christian nation seems to be transgressing into depravity, Cuba, for the first time, has declared Good Friday, an official public and bank holiday, thus allowing the religious freedom which had been curtailed after Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959. Imagine it was not until during Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba in 1998, that then president Fidel Castro was persuaded to reinstate Christmas as a holiday… things we in Belize take for granted. Ironically, we have so much freedom, but forget our responsibilities… Then we want to defend all our choices under the pretense of freedom and rights… Forgetting our responsibility to others and the society we live in. We have gotten so depraved that our everyday bedroom business has become national talk… no respect for decency and privacy… There is a time and place for things of this nature. We bombard our children with our sexual immorality and lewdness and call for it to be under the banner of “freedom”!

Sins of the father

But one freedom many took for granted this weekend, was the freedom to be out in the open, to walk around and socialize with friends and family. For one young man, that freedom was unjustly lost and it highlighted the injustice of being black, poor and living in targeted “hotspots” in this country. It sadly also magnified the lack of police investigation into serious crimes, which is the main cause for so many cases failing to net a conviction.

I say, if there are crimes committed, it means that someone had to have committed them. Like any right thinking Belizean I want the criminal to be caught and properly prosecuted and put in prison to do time according to the laws of our land. That is why, I want the authorities to make sure that they get the right person and follow the right procedure. The law gives police 48 hours within which to determine if there is sufficient evidence to charge a person held in their custody. If there is enough evidence to ground a charge and if that evidence has been tested to make them feel it is reliable, they are to proceed to lay a charge and issue a charge sheet to the prisoner.

Sadly, George McKenzie, Jr. was one of those unfortunate Belize City youth whose freedom was totally and unjustly taken away over the weekend. I must admit when I first heard the story I felt the story teller would be exaggerating, as I still want to think that our police officers would do the basic investigation and cross-check the whereabouts of persons before proffering a charge.

In McKenzie’s case it seems that a malicious or maybe innocent rival claimed he was the shooter of 57-year-old Alfonso Cruz on April 12, 2014. By Wednesday April 16, 2014 McKenzie was picked up and while he did not participate in an official identification parade, he did not hesitate to tell police his whereabouts at the time of the shooting. McKenzie could not be at two places at the same time, but sadly for him, the investigators and senior police officers refused to go cross-check his alibi, which was clearly recorded on a video camera at the restaurant where he and his brother do odd jobs to earn some pocket change. Police were so sure they had the right person and did not question their witness’ motives or possible human mistake because they could not put aside their bias against “Junie Balls” McKenzie, the now deceased father of their suspect. I guess they take the phrase “the sins of the father fall on the children” literally and could not see beyond the legend of the old McKenzie.

Penner still not detained

Without proper investigation this young man was arrested and charged, yet in failed Minister of State, Elvin Penner’s case, the police refuse to proffer a charge against him until after a full and proper investigation, which to date is still ongoing and we cannot yet hear any update.

In some poetic sense, the contrast between McKenzie and Penner is the story of our poor against the powerful. One lives in Pinks Alley, the other in San Ignacio; one is African descent, the other German descent; one has no office or “official” station in life, the other held a Ministerial post and still has his station in life defined by his affiliation with the Government of Belize and the United Democratic Party he represents. One is insignificant to the balance of power in governance, the other is critical to the Government keeping a majority to remain the government of the day. One is not on the radar of the Prime Minister or the Minister of Police as being significant, the other has direct access to both these office holders and his whereabouts and incarceration would prompt a quick response or reaction.

It is a travesty of justice that George McKenzie, Jr. only had to be mentioned as the shooter of Alfonso Cruz and was picked up without any further delay. While in custody the police had the benefit of hearing from him firsthand about his whereabouts, yet they refused to follow it up as their mind was seemingly made up. In their own twisted way they had already determined that McKenzie was guilty, even when his statements to them exonerated him.

On the other hand, we have Penner whose own words are sufficient to implicate him, yet there has been either an outright refusal to rely on it by police or a well sourced directive which caused the Commissioner of Police to stop the “investigation” into Penner’s action… Imagine a mandamus, which is not being fully complied with, had to be obtained mandating that Penner be investigated. If McKenzie could have been so fortunate, he would have spent his Easter with his family as a free man.

Let us never forget Penner’s own written words: “[I] personally went with him to the Passport Office to see to it that he would get proper attention and would get his passport the same day.” Clearly Citizen Kim did get the proper attention and did get the passport the same day! Now this is a confession freely and arrogantly given!

As you read this piece, make your own mental note of how this innocent young man has been treated versus how Penner the politician has been treated, and ask why the scale of justice in Belize is so imbalanced and why in Belize the blindfold of Lady Justice has been removed? Are the police the instrument by which this blindfold has been removed?

Video alibi

It turns out the persistence of a mother cannot be ignored, since the falsely-accused McKenzie had his cause avidly pursued by his mother, who at the eleventh hour got the attention of very senior police officers, who felt in fairness they must view the video that would provide an alibi and exonerate the young man who maintained his innocence. So reluctantly, the investigators had to deal with the fact that such evidence did exist and it was impossible for the young McKenzie to commit the murder because he was clearly at his work place long before the murder, during the murder and after the murder and at one point in a long conversation with his boss.

But did the senior police officers get involved a bit too late? It would seem so, since a charge sheet for murder had already been prepared, lodged at the Magistrate’s Court and the court was ready for his arraignment. The charge was not withdrawn then, only the arraignment held back to force the investigators to go back and review the video that cleared the name of the prisoner and free him. Sadly, Thursday was only a half-day work day at court and the police were in no haste to clear McKenzie as it would represent major embarrassment of the investigative skills of the police officers working on the case.

Further, verification that McKenzie is not the shooter of Cruz also points to the eagerness of the Police Department to quickly pin a murder on the son of a man who eluded the long arm of the law and never got convicted of a murder, despite police attributing many to him. It’s as if the police just did not want to know if indeed the young McKenzie had a valid alibi. But also, who is the person who bore false witness against him? Is it true he was beaten and intimidated into giving a false statement? Will he be prosecuted for providing a false statement?

Plus they know all too well that if said alibi was true, once the charge and arraignment was done, only the DPP could withdraw the charge, if it’s brought to that office’s attention. Otherwise, it would mean McKenzie would have to be able to afford an attorney to take on the matter and seek a withdrawal of the charges before there could be a preliminary inquiry. Oh yes, the accused may be absolutely absolved but the process that started would have to be undone by a process of its own… But what does this mean for the freedom of the wrongly accused McKenzie?

Unlawfully locked up

If there was ever an injustice by the police that is well documented I would say it is this incident involving McKenzie. Worse yet, the attitude of those who have kept the young man deprived of his freedom for a total of six days, is one of “so what” or “who cares” and I sensed a satisfaction in key police officials that in their own way they have meted out their justice against him, for whatever reason. Further, there was a sense of spite against the prisoner, and a sense of satisfaction of knowing that the long holiday weekend, with all courts closed, no magistrate or judge available, and no DPP at their disposal, justified keeping the young McKenzie incarcerated for the entire Holy Week weekend.

Not even the Commissioner of Police was able to undo a wrong by his officers and release the wrongly accused and charged youth. He thus supported the decision to keep the young man at Queen Street Police Station under lock-down until Tuesday. Imagine such injustice, and we wonder why the anger towards the authorities… Imagine, the police had the power to proffer the charge and lodge it at the Magistrate’s Court, yet could not undo it until he was brought back to the court… So for six days he was deprived of his freedom. His only recourse now is to bring suit against the state, but that could never give him back the freedom he lost, the enjoyment of the holiday and the companionship of friends and family… Never!

I opine that if a young black man is cornered and done wrong like this, it is an attempt to test his limits, frustrate him into anger, and bully him into lashing out… And so make a criminal of him. Okay, so the police have the constitutional power to stop you, search you, detain you for up to 48 hours, but they must do so to investigate what evidence is had against you… not to pre-determine guilt and make their own judgment. It cannot be that our police are as criminal as the men they seek, the only difference being they wear a uniform…. They have the resources of the state at their disposal and a simple check of a prisoner’s story is a basic duty as an officer of the law… not a lawless officer. This conduct now calls into question so much of their investigation and further explains why so many accused walk away with a “not guilty” verdict.

For the family of Alfonso Cruz… they still don’t have the satisfaction of knowing that the police have done a good job. The family of George McKenzie, Jr. thank God for technology, because if such a video did not exist, there is no way he would have been released now… despite his innocence!

God bless Belize!

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