ATTORNEYS representing a woman committed to stand trial for murder, have accused prison guards of putting pressure on her and other inmates to immediately plead guilty as part of a new sentencing initiative of the Judiciary.
Describing this as "an extremely disturbing state of affairs,” was attorney Rosario Sookdeo who appears with Senior Counsel Sophia Chote, for the accused woman. Sookdeo wrote to Commissioner of Prisons Gerard Wilson last week complaining of his officers' conduct.
In her letter, Sookdeo said flyers on the Judiciary’s maximum sentence indication (MSI) procedure were distributed in prison. An MSI is a hearing at which a judge gives an accused person an indication of the maximum sentence they would face if they were to plead guilty.
As part of this initiative, scores of prisoners committed to stand trial, were brought to special sittings at the Port of Spain High Court to determine the status of their matters.
The hearings were presided over by Justice Gillian Lucky who advised the inmates they were under no pressure to participate in the hearing. She also advised those on murder charges that letters would have to be written to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to determine whether a plea to felony murder will be accepted.
Sookdeo, in her letter, said inmates awaiting trial were called to a meeting on June 16 and advised of the MSI flyer with the procedure being explained to them.
Prisoners were told if they pleaded guilty, the judge would take one-third off their sentence and take into account time already spent in custody. It was emphasised to prisoners that the MSI was a “way to come out of prison.”
The lawyer said inmates were made to sign a form which stated: "Take notice that I intend to plead guilty in the above matter and hereby request the matter be dealt with prior to the regular criminal session.”
A statement was also taken from Sookdeo’s client which included an assertion that she willingly applied for an MSI. But after speaking with her father, the woman spoke to a senior prison officer and said she wanted to withdraw the MSI application until she gets legal advice. Another statement was taken from the female prisoner.
On July 4, the inmate was advised she had to go to court on July 17, and requests for documents were refused.
Sookdeo pointed out in her letter that prison officer has no right to provide an inmate with legal advice or should be encouraging any inmate accept the MSI, which in her client's case, means pleading guilty to murder.
“The officer who proffered this advice did not even seem to know that if you are not indicted, your depositions are not filed at the court registries and the accused person will not receive a copy until that is done.
"How on earth can they plead guilty without even seeing the documents of the case against them? This is nothing short of outrageous," attorney Sookdeo stated in her letter to the Prison Commissioner.
The attorney said that had prison officers simply distributed the flyers about the MSI procedure then left inmates to get advice first from their attorneys, that would have been acceptable.
She said that prison officers had infringed her client’s constitutional rights in multiple ways. "We, her attorneys, wish to bring this matter to your urgent attention so that this unnecessary pressure being brought by prison officers on inmates to plead guilty, should be stopped,” Sookdeo said.