Belize’s criminal justice system is badly broken and nobody cares to fix it!
The majority of persons who have been charged with a criminal offense in Belize, whether it is for a minor offense such as common assault or for more serious offenses such as rape and murder, will walk free! It doesn’t matter whether or not a defendant actually committed the crime; chances are, he or she WILL WALK FREE! This is a FACT! In other words, in the majority of criminal cases in Belize, the defendant will not be convicted, and as such they will NOT have to serve any prison sentence or suffer any legal consequences. The reason for this is that the criminal justice system in Belize is terribly broken, and it has been for many years now for the following three main reasons:
- There is no witness protection system in Belize
By a far stretch, the main form of evidence which is utilized in Belize is the evidence of eyewitnesses (here, eyewitnesses include complainants and the victims of crime). In the majority of cases before the High Court of Belize, the key eyewitnesses who incriminate the defendants are often afraid. The fear of these eyewitnesses has a very detrimental impact on the successful outcome of cases. If an eyewitness does not testify or testifies poorly, then the defendant walks free. I’ve lost a large number of cases because eyewitnesses are afraid and simply do not show up to testify in court, or testify poorly out of fear. Eyewitnesses even go into hiding so as to avoid testifying. In many cases, no eyewitness means no case! In some instances, where the police are able to secure the attendance of eyewitnesses by means of subpoenas or bench warrants, the eyewitnesses simply take the witness stand and remain mute or tell the judge that they saw nothing or that they do not know anything. Or some eyewitnesses may testify, but refuse to identify the defendant in court due to fear. The results are all the same: the defendant walks free! The defendant walks free whether or not he committed the crime! In Belize, eyewitnesses being afraid to testify is the number one factor which results in unsuccessful prosecutions.
In order for one to have a deeper understanding of the pivotal role of eyewitnesses, one must first understand the law in Belize and the wider Commonwealth Caribbean on this point. The law is that generally, evidence is what is said in court by a witness, NOT what the witness previously disclosed in a witness statement. Generally, a witness must attend court and testify; his or her witness statement is NOT evidence. Of course, there are exceptions, but such exceptions are rare and difficult to effect.
In most cases, if eyewitnesses were to testify and testify properly, a conviction would likely ensue. It is very easy for a prosecutor to secure a conviction when an eyewitness takes the stand and “sings like a canary”.
The fear of being an eyewitness in Belize is exacerbated or at least justified by the fact that there is no witness protection system in Belize. On a few rare occasions, the Government of Belize has reluctantly forged ad hoc witness protection arrangements for a few eyewitnesses at the bemoaning request of prosecutors.
Legally and technically, a crime is a wrong against the State. It is the prerogative of the State for eyewitnesses to testify in criminal trials. Therefore, the State has a responsibility to ensure the safety of its witnesses prior and post trial. In Belize, the State expects citizens to risk their lives and safety and that of their families in order to testify for the State in criminal trials. That is absurd and inhumane on the part of the Government of Belize.
Witnesses have told me, “Sir, I am willing to testify, but how can you make sure that I will be safe?” And I, as the prosecutor, am compelled to respond, saying, “The Government has no witness protection system; there is nothing we can do to keep you safe after you testify.” As a humanitarian, I often contemplate resigning from my job when I am forced to give such inhumane responses to fearful victims and eyewitnesses. How can I as a prosecutor try to convince a witness to testify when I know that they face a real security risk if they were to testify?
If there were a witness protection system in Belize, it would alleviate the fears of witnesses, which would in turn cause an immediate and sustained spike in the conviction rate, especially for serious offenses such as murder. There are a mountain of possible ways in which a witness protection system can easily be created in Belize. One method is by creating a secured housing community (akin to Los Lagos, HRCU Housing Community, etc.) with proper security along with some economic sustenance for witnesses. Another means would be to enter into a treaty with a neighbouring Caribbean nation that also lacks an effective witness protection program and trade witnesses who are in fear. Each nation would, for a prescribed period of time, be responsible for providing housing, basic economic sustenance and orientation into the witnesses’ new domicile. No more than 100 witnesses would perhaps be traded yearly.
Why has no one sought to fix this issue, which is the main plague of our criminal justice system? Crime and violence have become the main plagues of Belize. Why, then, is the criminal justice system neglected? The reason is that by and large it only affects a certain portion of our society. The politicians and those who can make a change do not cater to that portion of society; they only pretend to. Whether PUP or the UDP, both governments are guilty of ruthlessly neglecting the criminal justice system by failing to allocate necessary resources.
- The police do not know the law
A significant portion of my duties as a prosecutor entails interacting with police officers. There are a few police officers who know the law and know the law very well, but let me tell you: the majority of police officers in Belize do NOT know the law.
How can our police not know the very law which they are required to enforce? How can the police enforce the law if they do not know the law? How can an officer not understand the very criminal justice system in which he or she plays a vital role?
The lack of basic knowledge of the law by the police is the second major factor which results in the unsuccessful prosecution of crimes in Belize. The investigative skills of our police can be described as tremendously deplorable. Many cases are thrown out and lost because of failure of the police to adhere to basic procedures and laws. You see, where certain breaches in procedure and law by the police are severe, magistrates and judges have a duty to throw out the evidence. The chances that the police will butcher a criminal investigation are very high. The result is that the defendant will walk free!
And it does not end there! It gets worse! In Belize, the Government has seen it fit for police officers to serve as prosecutors at the Magistrate’s Court level. These police officers have little to no specialized training and education about the law. These officers are not paid any additional wages for the miraculous tasks that they are required to perform. Yet, they are required to represent the State and the victims of crime against defendants represented by trained attorneys who go to law school for a minimum of five years. How absurd is that! Such prosecutions are destined to be butchered. And again, the results are the same – the defendant will walk free!
It must be made clear: the police are not to be blamed for these deficiencies. It is, in fact, the duty and responsibility of the government to ensure that police officers are properly educated about the law. Our Government has consistently failed to ensure this. It is obvious that the duration of the police training program and its curriculum that police officers undertake to enrol in the Belize Police Department are woefully inadequate.
Now, while the police may not have much blame for their lack of legal knowledge, prosecutorial abilities, and basic education, there is a decaying attitude in the Belize Police Department, whereby the police mainly care about arrests and charges and not about convictions; for this, the police are to be blamed. This attitude also has a detrimental impact on the prosecution of cases, and I find it fit to include it under this subheading.
It is important for persons to first understand the difference between arrest, detention, charge and conviction. (If you care to know, read my previous Article 2, or a simple Google search would do.) Most persons are afraid of being charged. I’ve seen persons become terrified by the police threatening to charge them. If one really understood the system, one would not be afraid of being charged.
A charge is simply a formal accusation or allegation. That is all! A charge does not mean that the allegations are true! A charge does not mean that a suspect is guilty! A charge is far from a conviction!!! A charge is just the start of a process! A process which, statistically, is very likely to be butchered by the police to the benefit of the defendant. Unless it is the charge of murder (for which bail cannot be secured at an early stage: Read my Article 1), a defendant has little to worry about if he or she were to be charged. This is so because:
i. First, such a defendant has a right to be released on bail.
ii. The potency of a charge is whittled down by a defendant’s constitutional right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
iii. A defendant has a right to a fair trial.
iv. There are little to no means of gathering viable evidence in Belize.
v. Statistics show that for all offenses, it is unlikely that a defendant will be convicted at trial, i.e. the defendant is likely to walk free (because the conviction rate is deplorable).
vi. There is a possibility that such defendants can turn around and sue the State.
So, apart from a waste of one’s precious time, why worry about a charge?
From the above, you will gather that what really matters is a conviction and NOT a charge! Because ONLY if a defendant is CONVICTED can he or she then be sentenced by the court. Yet, our police have a careless and nonchalant attitude towards pursuing convictions. Apart from this being a widely accepted observation across the legal fraternity, I too have come to this conclusion based on many reasons that I have keenly observed over the years, including
i. I have gone into police stations and observed on large white boards, categories for many crimes under the headers, “arrests”, “outstanding arrests”, “charges”, “outstanding charges” and other categories. On those white boards inside the police stations there is absolutely NO category for “convictions”!
ii. Often, when an investigator submits a case file to the Prosecutions Branch, the investigator wipes his or her hands off that file and is reluctant to deal with such a case file any further. This is a common issue that I and most prosecutors have with investigators. They are reluctant to carry out further investigations, and they are unaware of any new prospective evidence or developments in their cases.
iii. Many police officers are reluctant to give witness statements, and when they do, it is either woefully inadequate or severely delayed, so much so that its credibility is easily questioned by defense counsel in court.
iv. I have seen many cases crumble because police officers simply arrest and charge persons and don’t even follow up any investigation at all.
v. I have heard police officers saying, “I have to get a charge today!”, and I have cautioned such officers by informing them that that is a bad attitude to countenance.
vi. I have dealt with many officers who are reluctant to testify in court. I often question such officers, “Why do you arrest and charge the person, if at the end of the day you don’t intend to pursue the matter?”
vii. I have dealt with cases in which there is no evidence against a suspect; yet the police simply grab innocent youths to arrest and charge for the crime, knowing that no conviction will ensue because there is no viable evidence against the person. This is done by the police in order to appease the media and the public to show that the crime has not gone unsolved. Little do the media and public know that ultimately the crime will go unsolved because there is no concrete evidence against the defendant, and so such defendant will walk free when the court case is called up for trial several years later.
Now, I can go on and on and list so many other reasons and instances why I say that there is an attitude within the Police Department that the police focus only on arrests and charges and lack any interest to follow up with a conviction. All of this said, there are many good officers who do care about convictions; but by and large there is a prevalent attitude within the Police Department which must be changed, because it has a detrimental impact on the successful outcome of cases.
The media has fallen prey, gulping down this atrocious attitude and injustice perpetuated by the Belize Police Department, and continues to feed it to the Belizean public. You see, whenever a crime is committed, the police often score high in the eyes of the media and the public, because someone is arrested and charged for the crime! Yay! Viewers see the police all over the media reporting that they have arrested and charged a suspect for the crime. And the story ends there! The police come across as heroes! The media and the public rarely follow up on the cases. I have seen countless accused criminals, including murderers and rapists, walk free in court, and not a word of this makes the news! Many times, four years later when the same once sensational case comes up for trial in the court, there aren’t even any media personnel present in court to report on the matter!!! If the media and the public were to follow up on each of these cases, they would soon realize that most of the defendants are all walking free. The police would soon be seen as villains instead of heroes, who grab and charge innocent young men to appease the media and the public without concrete evidence. They take advantage of the fact that most of the cases take several years before they come up for trial, and when they eventually do, the public and the media would not follow up on the cases (unless it were a high-profile case).
- Belize does not have an adequate forensic laboratory.
We are in the 21st Century. You do not need an eyewitness to solve every crime. Many crimes can be solved with forensic evidence, and forensic evidence can actually be far more reliable than eyewitnesses. Yet, Belize has placed no genuine effort towards developing a respectable forensic laboratory and services. The Belize National Forensic Science Service was recently in the news boasting about the increase in the number of successful convictions as a result of forensic evidence. What they did not tell the media and the public is that for any substantive analysis or examination, prospective evidence has to be sent abroad to the USA, Cayman Islands or Jamaica for DNA testing. Our national forensic Laboratory is incapable of conducting any form of DNA analysis. To give you an example of how primitive our national Forensic Laboratory is, the laboratory is capable of carrying out tests on blood merely to determine the type of blood (e.g. A+, A-, B, O+, O-, etc.), but it is unable to carry out tests to ascertain whether the collected blood is that of a particular person. Now, how on earth can a prosecutor and a court find use in such a report from our forensic laboratory, that for example, the collected blood is of the type “O positive” (O+)? There are thousands of people with such blood type! In order to prove a case, I, the prosecutor, need to know if the blood is that of a PARTICULAR person (such as a deceased, a suspect, etc.)!
And, don’t think that it is easy to have prospective evidence sent abroad for DNA testing! Oh no, that is a tough battle, due to “lack of funding”! On rare occasions when evidence does “qualify” to be sent for testing and when there is “available funding”, the government is reluctant to pay the fees to have the foreign forensic DNA analysts testify in the Belize High Court. Just ask American national, DNA forensic analyst, Ms. Samantha Wandzek, who testified about DNA evidence in a Belize High Court trial and could not be paid her professional fees for over one year! (Ms. Wandzek is not the only foreign forensic DNA analyst in this predicament.)
So, there is little to no means of obtaining good, viable evidence in Belize. The eyewitnesses are afraid to testify, our police will butcher the cases by failing to adhere to proper procedures and laws, and our National Forensic Science Services laboratory is useless. So, where can we obtain the necessary evidence from? God help us! It is obvious that our criminal justice system is terribly broken! And no one cares to genuinely fix it. The few “lucky” convictions, which are not overturned on appeal, are to be greatly celebrated.
I pray that you or your family are never the victims of crime in Belize, because in Belize, criminal justice is like the Boledo; the odds are against you — any number can play. Unless you are a defendant, you are likely to find yourself up a certain creek without a paddle.
I write from a first-hand account. Everything which has been canvassed in this article is directly from the horse’s mouth. Secondly, I write with no personal or political motive or interest. The only motive I bear is that the right person would read this article and save my beloved country.
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Observant Front Line Prosecutor / BTNP