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Friday 6 December 2019
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Let’s ‘address’ witness safety in court

Debbie Jacob
Debbie Jacob

It was one of those stories that raised concerns and hit home – a story I took to heart and made me remember my own experience in court. On November 14, Newsday published a story by Sean Douglas that featured Acting Commissioner Dane Clarke (then Prison Deputy Commissioner) testifying before the Senate Special Select Committee on the Evidence Bill 2019, which was chaired by Clarence Rambharat, the previous day.

Clarke, whom I have known to be an outspoken advocate for both inmates and officers, told the committee that officers are afraid to testify in court because their addresses are released to the suspect’s attorney. On that day, Douglas’ story said, Clarke “asked for measures for officers to give evidence anonymously.”

This all left little to my imagination because I have known the utter feeling of helplessness and fear that comes from standing in court and having to provide your address. So it was shocking to me that a committee member, Anthony Vieira would as, according to Douglas’s story ask, “if this was a very real fear.”

Clarke reportedly applied, “Continuously.” As a reader, I felt embarrassed and disappointed that Clarke had to bring up the assassination of prison officers to support his case. Justice of the Peace Association Vice President Don Asgarali bolstered Clarke’s argument with an anecdote about a prison officer visibly shaken at an ID parade.

Thirty-two years ago, I stood before the court after five youths stole and crashed my car, killing one of the passengers. I was a single mom with a newborn baby, and I felt horrified when the police prosecutor asked me to state where I lived. I refused.

Stunned momentarily the police officer repeated the question. I said, “I see no reason why I have to give my address to car thieves so they know where I live.” When the police officer asked for the fourth time – and I swear I remember a smirk on the teenagers’ faces – and I refused once again, the magistrate threatened me with a contempt of court charge. I would have gladly taken it.

Instead, the police prosecutor raised his hand and calmly said, “It’s all right. I know how to handle this," and he asked, "do you live at…?” He read aloud my address. Now I faced perjury charges if I did not agree, and I would not perjure myself in court.

Thirty-two years later I still resent that I had to give my address in court and my choice for contempt of court was taken away from me. I felt dejected, vulnerable and betrayed by the justice system. I can’t imagine prison officers having to face this threat continuously.

As one prison officer told me when we discussed Douglas’ story, “What does it matter where you live? Is that relevant to the testimony you are giving? Does it help to decide the innocence or guilt of the person being prosecuted?” Of course it doesn’t matter, and yet the practice continues with no regard to the safety of the witness.

We all know Trinidad is a small place with nowhere to hide. There is nowhere to hide if someone wants to find you. One prison officer told me about his experience of being in court and being questioned by the accused who had no lawyer. He told of how the defendant lingered on his address and asked several questions about it, and the court never intervened. The accused repeated the entire conversation, which clearly demonstrated intimidation tactics.

At that Senate hearing on November 13, Committee member Saddam Hosein raised questions about witness anonymity. Douglas reported that Hosein wondered if it “might possibly be abused by people throwing wild accusations, without later being subject to cross-examination.”

Legal Aid Authority director Gilbert Peterson, SC, said anonymous testimony would have to consider how to deal with witnesses “of known bad character.” That’s a whole other issue. Of course there will be challenges, but what we’re talking about here is making witnesses feel better protected by the courts.

Of course the end result of that Senate hearing was that there needs to be more discussion on the matter because we like to discuss matters to death so we don’t have to make important decisions. But let me tell you this, it is time to stop asking people their addresses in court. It is a terrible feeling to go to court and feel the court is leaving you vulnerable rather than protecting you. It’s a feeling you never get over. Trust me, I have 32 years of experience.

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