THE DIRECTOR of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has taken a decision that no evidence will be taken at his office at the Winsure Building in Port of Spain for criminal trials.
Instead, he is maintaining that the taking of evidence will return to the Hall of Justice now that covid19 public health regulations have been relaxed to allow for gatherings of up to 25 people.
The DPP’s position was given at the virtual judge-alone trial being heard by Justice Lisa Ramsumair-Hinds.
At Friday’s sitting, prosecutors came under fire for a previous non-appearance before the judge earlier this week. Prosecutors had sought an adjournment so they could attend a meeting with the DPP, but the judge did not grant it.
She said the non-appearance by the State in matters where five indictments had been filed against accused people was “discourteous to the court.”
After dealing with that matter, state attorney Maria Lyons-Edwards also notified the judge that the DPP’s instructions were that they return to the Hall of Justice to continue to take the testimony of the prosecution’s witnesses in the case against Carlos Cezair who is charged with murder.
Lyons-Edwards said the traffic of people at the DPP’s office made it difficult to maintain social distancing and comply with health and safety guidelines.
It also disrupts the hearing of other matters, mainly magisterial cases also being heard virtually, when the courtroom being used is occupied for the trial. Concerns were also raised about the propriety and integrity of the trial when witnesses appear virtually.
She said the DPP has said evidence will no longer be taken at that office.
Lyons-Edwards said the Office of the DPP was “quite willing to continue with the trial with protocols set out at the Hall of Justice.”
“We know it is open. We know criminal matters can continue to be taken virtually. No more evidence is to be taken here,” she said.
Ramsumair-Hinds said the DPP’s position was “interesting” and appeared to have been taken “almost overnight.”
She also reminded that this was not the first murder trial where the testimony of witnesses was taken from that office.
The judge told the prosecution to put its application for the change of venue in writing. She again said it was a discourtesy to the court not to telegraph the State’s position before Friday’s sitting.
“The court’s time has been fantastically wasted today,” she said.
Defence attorney Amerelle Francis said she too was taken by surprise by the application and asked if the DPP had sent official correspondence to the Chief Justice to say the Winsure Building location will not be used to take evidence.
“That is something the Chief Justice should be aware of,” she advised, saying it would be a matter for all courts to consider in the planning of the courtrooms.
“I think that also has an overall impact in planning and hearing of matters in criminal cases,” she said, adding that trials can be facilitated at the Hall of Justice to fit with the practice directions and the public health regulations.
Ramsumair-Hinds said while they found themselves at an “uncomfortable crossroads,” all parties must be careful to consider whose rights should be at the forefront.
“We need to crystallise issues dispassionately,” she said, adding that she has been in contact with the court executive administrator and the court manager for the criminal division for Port of Spain and there was a “Plan B” in the event it became necessary.
She said one of the courtrooms used by civil judges for case management conferences can be used for taking witnesses' testimony while the rest of the trial continues virtually.
“There are lots of other options which are unexplored, including police stations,” she said.
She is expected to rule on the State’s application next Tuesday.
She also said if she was minded to grant the State’s request for a change in venue, there were other considerations including the 14-day quarantine requirement of the prison for any inmate leaving the facility.
In another virtual jury trial under way at the Hall of Justice, the accused in that matter has opted not to return to the courthouse for his trial because of the conditions at the prisons quarantine facility at Santa Rosa. He will follow his trial from the facility until his 14 days are over and he is able to return to the prison in Arouca, while the judge, jurors, attorneys and witness will continue with the trial at the Hall of Justice.
Ramsumair-Hinds said it was not a given she would refuse the State’s application, but said it did not mean that they would all return to the Hall of Justice.
At present, Cezair and his attorneys are at a video-conferencing facility at the Arouca prison set up for virtual court hearings, while the judge is presiding over the trial from another location.
The Judiciary, in a recent stated position on jury trials in Stages 3+ of covid19, said judges of the criminal division have been discussing and studying the issue of criminal trials in the time of the coronavirus pandemic.
So far, they have been able to deal with charge cases, bail applications, case management conferences, preliminary inquiries, magisterial trials and judge-alone trials using virtual technology.
The stated position said judges were of the view that “certain types of offences, not limited to hybrid offences, should be mandatorily tried by judges sitting alone; for the time being all other offences should continue to be tried by judges alone, only at the request of the accused and that any capital jury trials be heard by a judge and jury of nine with up to two alternates and all non-capital jury trials be heard by a judge and jury of six or seven with up to two alternates.
It is recommended that for capital trials, a verdict for murder should be unanimous, with a majority verdict of seven for manslaughter. In all other cases, a majority verdict of at least five can be properly received by the court.
The judges were also of the view that jury trials may require the use of more than one courtroom (or other space) but the jurors and the judge must always be together in the same place.
“The usual position will be that the accused will be appearing by video link. The court’s administration is prepared to implement the configuration of technology and other resources on a case-by-case basis in collaboration with the judge.
“These resources will include not only video technology and court reporting technology, but also the number and placement of screens, and assignment of marshals' assistants and other staff,” the position document said.
A stakeholder discussion was held with senior members of the criminal bar on Thursday.
Questions were sent to the Judiciary on Friday, but there was no response.
Contacted for comment on his position, DPP Roger Gaspard told Newsday he had a staff meeting on Monday and did not wish to comment before that. He also said he was not sufficiently acquainted with what Ramsumair-Hinds said, so could not offer a comment.