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Home Features “She was Brave” – the Nora Parham tragedy

“She was Brave” – the Nora Parham tragedy

“She was brave. She believed that she was great. She was not sorrowful nor nothing…”. Those are the words of Eustace Pandy, the man who said he escorted 36-year-old Nora Parham to the gallows. Those are the words he used in an interview with Amandala (published 16th October, 2015) when he described Nora as she walked to the gallows to face her fate decided by 12 men of the jury.

“No black flag, no bell, and not even any noise audible to the public was made when eight o’clock came and Nora was hanged,” —the Belize Billboard of Thursday, June 6, 1963.

An unmarked grave
Today, 5th June, 2020 at exactly 8:00, will mark 57 years since Nora Parham nee Williams was executed in this country. It was a state execution and the only execution of a female in Belize! She was hanged by the neck until she could not breathe, and thereafter, she was declared dead and buried in an unmarked grave. For those of you who do not know it, being placed in an unmarked grave is an effort to seemingly punish you even after death. Your family does not get your body to give you a proper burial, and the idea is that your crime of murder was so heinous that you do not deserve a marked grave to be remembered. Your family and loved ones are further punished, as there is nowhere they can go to take you flowers or anything or visit on the anniversary of your death, your birthday or any day.

Capital punishment, or the death penalty as we call it, is really cruel, and even more so when committed against an innocent woman. Nora Parham was at the time of her death the mother of eight sons, four of them from her first marriage and the last four for the man she was accused of killing — PC. Ketchell Raymond Trapp, her live-in partner, who was a serving member of the British Honduras Police Force.

Credible reports from then and from her testimony at court, that he was an abusive husband and very much given to drinking and smoking, seem to be undisputed. From the records of those times, what can be ascertained is that on the morning of 6th February 1963, Ketchell Trapp caught on fire in the pit latrine at the house in Orange Walk, where he lived with Nora and the children. As a result he sustained third-degree burns to 90 percent of his body, except for his neck and head. He died the following day at the old Belize City Hospital, which was on Eve St.

Not much is known about Ketchell Raymond Trapp thereafter, except, he was not buried in an unmarked grave. He got full funeral rites and a proper burial, as we say in Belize, and was buried with full police honours. His name is only remembered as the man whom Nora Parham killed or for whose death she was sentenced for murder and hanged. Stark cold truth, but his grave was not unmarked, despite the fact that the history of the relationship, up to that morning of 6th February, 1963 is that he would regularly be physically abusive to Nora, even in the presence of the children and out in public. He did not get an unmarked grave, despite being a drunkard and woman beater.

On 7th April, 2009 in an article in this newspaper, it was reported as follows: “On Tuesday, Eric Williams, 62, a security officer with the US Embassy, told our newspaper that he was a teen living in PG at the time, when he remembers seeing Trapp kick Nora down a flight of stairs, while he was on duty at a night spot – Dream Light – where a dance was in progress. The side of Nora’s face was bleeding when she got up.” This was in direct contradiction of an allegation by a member of Trapp’s family that Nora was the aggressor. There are no known reports of anyone ever seeing Nora aggress or abuse Trapp. On the contrary, the reports of his abuse to her are legendary, to say the least.

The men who killed Nora Parham
Based on the reports, Nora was detained at the Orange Walk Police Station on the same day of the incident and transferred to the Belize Central Prison on Gaol Lane, which is now a museum, on 16th February 1963. Her case was heard within two months from the incident, in the April session of the Supreme Court. That was a speedy trial indeed. The presiding judge was Chief Justice, Sir Clifford de Lisle Innis, and the Crown Counsel was J. K. Havers, while her defence attorney was Sidney A. McKinstry.

In case you missed the irony of it, those at the helm of the case were all men, and so were the twelve jurors, who ultimately sealed her fate. Their names were: (1) Joseph Dennis Robateau (foreman), (2) Norman Richard Kemp, (3) Theodore Fuller, (4) Basil Vernon, (5) Antonio Aguilar, (6) Claude Moody, (7) Keith Wallace, (8) Norman Saldano, (9) Joseph Adolfo Vasquez, (10) Sydney Swift, (11) Kent Badillo, and (12) Alfred Haylock.

Our law then and now said that you would be judged by a jury of your peers, but none of those sitting as jurors were her peers, to say the least. According to an account in the Amandala of 7th April, 2009, “On Tuesday, April 30, the jury was advised that it could arrive at one of three possible verdicts: guilty of murder, guilty of manslaughter or guilty of nothing at all. It is clear that the jury disbelieved Nora, and the 12 – all men – concluded that she had murdered Trapp. The justice system allowed for clemency, and even C.J. Innis had assured the jury before they delivered the verdict of guilty of murder that a plea for mercy could be considered. But in the end, no mercy was granted… When the death sentence was handed down by the judge, the jury was told that the recommendation for mercy would be sent to the Governor – at the time, Sir Peter H.G. Stallard.”

I think in present-day cases, the judge could not get away with suggesting to the jury that even if they find her guilty, they need not worry about her being executed because they can consider the option of prerogative of mercy that can be granted by the governor. This seems to suggest they should find her guilty and such a suggestion in and of itself, would be basis for an appeal.

Governor Stallard had appointed an all-men special committee to advise on whether to use the prerogative of mercy in favour of Nora, but they decided that the law must take its course and Nora must be hanged. By then, Belize had its own political luminaries, in the persons of First Minister, George Price, and Chief Secretary Michael Porcher, but they supported the death penalty. Only the Belize Billboard, whose leader was Philip Goldson, kept pressing and begging for mercy and seeking to prevent her execution. It is because of the news reports in the Belize Billboard that we can recount with so much details the trail of Nora and the happenings around that time.

At the time, Nora’s children were ages 15 years to 14 months, and now, like then, they are still begging for a pardon for their mother. It is said that the children even asked for an audience with Governor Stallard, but he refused to meet with those 8 boys. At the end of the day, we know well who are the men who killed Nora Parham, and history will not exonerate them.  At the time Nora was killed, her son, Dean Williams says, the letter from the Queen of England granting a stay of the execution was barely on its way.

Female inequality
Let us not forget it’s 1963 we are talking about. Mail was very slow and “backwards”, compared to now, and so was the thinking regarding women. Nora was not only an “East Indian”, a descendant of the indentured labourers who came into this country working for slave wages, but she was also a woman. She was a woman who was still legally married to a first husband, from whom she had become estranged, and was now living with another man for seven years, with whom she had four more children. There was also accusation against Nora, reportedly that Trapp would indeed be abusive to her and that the source of such abuse was that he claimed that she gave him “shall-eye pickney,” because two were black and two were East-Indian looking.

I say all of that which was reported then, to put in context the prejudices against women and the social stigma associated with women of Nora’s characteristics and life realities. Then, like now, society was very judgmental, and then it was the men who would have an absolute final say. Some of that has changed today, as women press for equal treatment and opportunities, and fight back against the judgment of society, but Nora was not in a position to fight the prejudices of those who arrested, charged, judged her and ultimately condemned her. We must nonetheless applaud the 2,461 persons, who signed the petition pleading for mercy: 1,815 from Belize, 310 from Stann Creek, 268 from Punta Gorda, and 68 from Salt Creek, according to the reports in the Billboard newspaper.

To understand the Nora Parham story and tragedy, you have to understand too the context of the society and the race relations, elitist thinking, the discrimination against women, the political environment and the dominance of men over the lives of women at that time. You also have to appreciate that in those days, no matter how much you reported domestic violence to the police, nothing was done, and worse yet, where the abuser was one of the their own… yes, that still happens today. Also, you have to remember that there were no special laws, like we have today, to protect women against domestic violence, and there was no defence based on ‘Battered Women Syndrome’ and the like. Honestly, from the evidence of the case, I believe Nora’s account that she was innocent and did not light that match.

In Nora’s own words
“…he was going outside, saying to me he was going to the toilet. While going to the toilet he used threatening words to me. I then replied to him, saying, I will make the Sergeant know about your threatening words. He then returned back in the bedroom. While he came back in the bedroom, I had a gasoline iron [in] my hand with a pan of gasoline.

”He came in the bedroom with a stick in his hand and hit me on my head. When he was going to hit me another hit, I threw the gasoline on him and he grabbed away the pan from me, and I went through the backdoor and he stone me with the said pan.

”After he stoned [me], I ran around the house and he never see where I got to. I went in the house through the front door, then I took the gasoline iron from where I left it and put it in the box.

”While I was inside I heard a noise and I run to see what it was. When I went I saw Ketchell Trapp come out of the latrine under fire. I then run up to help him but I see I could not, then I continued running towards the Hospital back street, running towards the station.”

She went running for help, and that is not the action of a killer, yet she was executed in the end, even though there were no eyewitnesses to prove that she did lock Trapp up and light the match. Over the years there was one constant eyewitness, Pinita Espejo, who was present when Trapp gave his statement to police from his hospital bed in Orange Walk. She has always been adamant that Trapp on his dying bed told police that he lit the cigarette while he was in the outhouse and that’s when the fire started. However, she heard a different version read at court and protested the change, but was ignored. That makes sense to me, especially since he was a known smoker and it was not unusual for men to sit in the outhouse, located in the backyard, to relieve their bodily needs while taking a smoke.

I know today, from the evidence we could unearth in the archives, this case would have been decided differently, and Nora would not have been found guilty, because she was NOT guilty! However, even 57 years later, her sons have not given hope that their mother can be vindicated posthumously.

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