BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Oct. 18, 2018– Japhet Bennett, a convicted murderer who was serving a life in prison sentence, was released from the Belize Central Prison yesterday evening, after the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) ruled to overturn his conviction due to unreliable identification evidence from a witness at his February 2013 trial in the Supreme Court of Justice Adolph Lucas.
The jury found Bennett, 25, guilty of the September 13, 2009 murder of Ellis “Pepper Gacho” Meighan, who was shot to death on Central American Boulevard, a stone’s throw away from his Banak Street home.
Marlon Middleton, a brother-in-law of the deceased Meighan, had told police in a statement about two days after Meighan was murdered that he saw Bennett standing over Meighan’s body. At the trial, however, Middleton recanted his statement and the prosecution had to apply for him to be treated as a hostile witness.
At the close of the prosecution’s case, Bennett’s attorney made a no-case-to-answer submission, but Justice Lucas did not accept the submission and the case was put to the jury, which consequently found Bennett guilty of the murder.
On February 25, 2013, Justice Lucas sentenced Bennett to life in prison. Bennett appealed his conviction to the Court of Appeal, but his conviction was affirmed by the court, so he applied for leave to appeal to the CCJ as a poor person.
His appeal was argued by attorney Anthony Sylvestre, who was holding brief from Bennett’s attorney, Audrey Matura, who was out of the country when the matter came up at the CCJ earlier this year.
In an interview with 7News, Matura said, “The basic thrust of the decision is that he was convicted on the statement of a witness who wasn’t an eyewitness that saw the actual event, but who supposedly came after. That witness, when he took the stand, changed his story and said no, that’s not the person. So, they treated him then as a witness who gave an inconsistent statement. But now, this was the only evidence, this inconsistent statement, and we were arguing that it wasn’t a safe way to convict someone. You have to have something else. That statement shouldn’t be so weak. You should have been sure as to the identity.”
Matura expressed surprise at the decision, saying, “I want to say too that we had expected that today’s decision would have been whether they gave us the permission, the special leave to appeal, but what they did, the hearing for the special leave to appeal, they treated it as the appeal and they gave a full-blown decision. Five judges deliberated and I want to thank Mr. Anthony Sylvester who presented the first part of the case on my behalf because I wasn’t in the country, and the Death Penalty Project, who were the attorneys in the UK, who helped us with the search and the argument. So, it’s a team effort.”
In their media release, the CCJ said, “In 2009, Mr. Middleton had given a detailed statement to the police two days after Meighan was shot and killed. He claimed that he was riding his bicycle in the vicinity of the shooting when he heard gunshots. Mr. Middleton said that he then sped towards the area and saw a body on the ground. He saw a man, whom he recognized as Mr. Bennett, standing about two feet away from the body with a gun in his hand. His statement also revealed that Mr. Middleton had been approximately forty feet away from the body, in a well-lit area, with nothing obstructing his view. Additionally, he stated that he had known Mr. Bennett for about four months and had seen him one week before the shooting. At trial, Mr. Middleton denied that he had seen Mr. Bennett at the scene of the crime. The prosecution pointed out that Mr. Middleton had given a contradictory statement to the police and that that statement was made of his own free will and was accurately recorded by a police officer, in the presence of a Justice of the Peace, and signed by Mr. Middleton. The trial judge admitted the statement into evidence and it was read aloud to the jury. There was no other evidence linking Bennett to the shooting.
“Mr. Bennett’s lawyer then requested that the judge stop the case and direct that the jury acquit his client of all charges as there was insufficient evidence linking him to the crime. The judge refused the request and the jury eventually found Mr. Bennett guilty of murder….”