Attorneys say the Crown’s case was not proven
BELMOPAN, Fri. Oct. 25, 2019– The defense made final submissions today in the long-drawn-out trial of William “Danny” Mason and the four men — Ashton Vanegas, Keiron Fernandez, Terrence Fernandez, and Ernest Castillo —who are charged with him for the July 2016 murder and beheading of Pastor Llewellyn Lucas.
Supreme Court Justice Antoinette Moore, who heard the case without a jury, indicated that she will deliver her judgment before the end of the year.
Director of Public Prosecutions, Cheryl-Lynn Vidal, led the Crown’s evidence against the five accused men, who were defended by six defense attorneys.
During the marathon trial, which began in the Belmopan Supreme Court in early March (when the first few witnesses testified via teleconference), right down to the final re-called prosecution witness (a scenes of crime technician who assisted the court with explanations of photographs of burnt bones at a fire-pit on Mason’s Outback Ranch), the prosecution labored in the presentations of its primarily circumstantial evidence to convince the court that the accused men are responsible for the murder of Pastor Lucas.
The case came to an end today after the remaining defense attorneys made final submissions. Norman Rodriguez addressed the court on behalf of his client, Ashton Vanegas. Bryan Neal represented Keron Fernandez, and Illana Swift represented Terrence Fernandez.
In the circumstantial evidence that DPP Vidal used to prove the state’s murder indictment, she relied on testimonies from one of the kidnapped victims, David Dodd, who had accompanied Pastor Lucas to Mason’s ranch; video surveillance evidence that police investigators had collected from the ranch showing Pastor Lucas being escorted by two of the accused; and DNA evidence which confirmed the likeness of Pastor Lucas’ DNA on three of the accused men’s clothing.
The DNA evidence that was provided by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) was accompanied by live testimony via Skype from the US.
DPP Vidal submitted in her final arguments that a man who was seen walking behind Pastor Lucas in a surveillance video from Mason’s ranch was Vanegas. The video shows that the man walking behind Pastor Lucas had a machete in one hand and a blue bandana.
The scenes of crime technician’s photograph of Pastor Lucas’ head showed a blue bandana tied at the base of his neck when his head was found in a bucket in the back of Mason’s pickup.
Notwithstanding the circumstantial evidence that the DPP led against Vanegas, his attorney, Rodriguez, summarized to reporters his assessment of the evidence led by the Crown, against his client.
“There is absolutely no evidence to support that he committed any act of murder,” Rodriguez said.
“A major piece of the DPP’s evidence that she [the DPP] has provided is surveillance footage from William Mason’s home surveillance system, which, she says, if you study it carefully, frame by frame, you can definitely make out your client and everybody else. You might not be able to see their faces, but if you study the videos long enough, you can. Do you disagree?” One reporter challenged Rodriguez.
Rodriguez replied, quoting a section of the law, “Section 64 of the Evidence Act tells you that you can bring evidence to the court, out of court, or in court, through your witnesses. Witnesses are brought before the court, during the presentation of the Crown’s case, and the defense’s case. And where that is not done, it is not considered the evidence. So, in my opinion, my thought is that I don’t need to comment on video evidence where no witness came before the close of the Crown’s and the defense’s case to identify any of those people in that video.”
Similarly, Keiron Fernandez’s attorney, Neal, is of the view that the evidence that the Crown presented against his client did not cut muster and the murder indictment has not been proven.
Keiron Fernandez gave a dock statement in which he admitted to being at Mason’s ranch, where, the DPP believes, Pastor Lucas met his tragic end.
In her submission, the DPP said Fernandez was the person who detained Pastor Lucas’ two friends after their arrival at the ranch, and he assisted in putting them in the back of the pickup, after which he got in.
When police attempted to search the pickup when it was parked, in front of Sancho’s Bar in Belmopan, Fernandez attempted to stop the police from searching the pickup. The police search of the pickup led to the discovery of Pastor Lucas’ head in a bucket. It was after that discovery that the five accused men were arrested and taken to the Belmopan Police Station, the DPP said.
The DPP also led evidence that confirmed the presence of Pastor Lucas’ DNA profile on Keiron Fernandez’s shirt.
In regards to the evidence presented by the DPP, Neal told reporters, “I was able to focus on the identification evidence in the video, which is very grainy, and did not make out any face of any of the accused men. And I pointed out that with particularly the third accused, and who they are saying in the video is the third accused, who I represent, was not identified by any of the other witnesses that attended in this trial.
“So, there’s no proper identification evidence. I also submitted about the DNA evidence, the way it was collected, and the fact that it wasn’t collected from a crime scene, that it cannot count as evidence against my client. I focused on the faulty investigation that went nowhere, as far as I am concerned, and a couple of other legal points that I hope the judge will consider and enter a verdict of not guilty for the third accused man, Keiron Fernandez.”
It was pointed out to Neal that, “There seemed to have been this reoccurring issue among the defendants as it pertains to circumstantial evidence.”
Neal responded saying, “Let me break it down for you, so that even a baby could understand. Think about it like a rope. You have one piece of evidence, identification. You have another piece, DNA. You have another piece, investigation. You must tie all those strands together like a rope, and if the rope is tight, then you’ve proven your case. We’re saying that the rope cannot be woven together; there is no circumstantial evidence, and the case fails.”
Terrence Fernandez’s attorney, Illana Swift, is also of the view that the DPP did not prove the Crown’s case against her client.
Swift submitted that the DPP made unsubstantiated assertions against her client and that she (the DPP) was relying on an unclear video.
On Wednesday, during the DPP’s submissions, all five accused men had their eyes glued to the large screen in the courtroom, where the video evidence that the DPP brought to bolster her case was being shown.
The DPP says that Terrence Fernandez played a major role in the kidnapping of Lucas and the other men. In the surveillance footage, he was allegedly seen in constant communication with a man resembling Mason, who the DPP asserts is the mastermind.
Swift argued that her client was an employee who simply went to work that day and did not participate in any crime. The DPP did not prove that her client was a part of the joint enterprise which the DPP asserted was responsible for the murder of Pastor Lucas, she said.
Attorney Baja Shoman, who represented Ernest Castillo, said in her closing arguments on Thursday that the Crown did not prove that Castillo acted in the joint enterprise on which the DPP has premised her case.
Shoman also argued that none of the prosecution witnesses identified Castillo, and the video that the DPP used to illustrate events at the ranch was not helpful to the prosecution’s case.
In the DNA evidence that the DPP used, Pastor Lucas’ DNA was found on the clothing that Castillo was wearing.
Shoman, however, argued that there is a possibility that there was cross-contamination because of the manner in which the DNA evidence was collected.
On Wednesday, Guyanese attorney Dexter Todd, who represented William Mason, made his final submissions to the Court.
Todd, too, asserted that the Crown did not prove its case against his client. Following the court’s adjournment on Wednesday, Todd told reporters, “The evidence as it was presented in this case, I believe, fell short of a number of things and I have closed my arguments at looking holistically at the evidence.
“I am of the view that the investigation was not thorough. It lacked the type of completeness to bring conclusively what really transpired. This is a case entirely on circumstantial evidence and I think, in dealing with circumstantial evidence, there ought to have been more coming from the investigation itself, which would have lent a clearer picture of what actually transpired.
“So basically, that was what I presented to the court, and I pointed out to the court what were some of the shortcomings.”