THE MURDER of Akili Charles on Saturday has repercussions extending far beyond the criminal justice system.
Mr Charles was an advocate for something very specific: the right of people accused of wrongdoing to be free. But what matters even more is the fact that he was an advocate at all.
The cutting short of his life has the potential to have a chilling effect across society, among all those who dare stand up and speak out, whether in a formal or informal capacity.
But Mr Charles was no mere cipher. As we have been reminded by prison reform advocate and Newsday columnist Debbie Jacob, he was a living and breathing human being.
“I will always remember Akili Charles as a supportive young man who made the most of every opportunity he had in prison programmes,” Ms Jacob said this week. “He possessed a brilliant mind, a keen sense of community spirit and was a fearless advocate for social justice.”
That such a testimonial was possible despite Mr Charles’s life experiences is notable. He spent almost nine years in prison on a murder charge before a magistrate determined the State’s evidence against him did not constitute a case to answer.
Delays in the case were caused largely by matters that had nothing to do with him or his legal team: a change in magistrate forced the matter to be considered
It was an unusual but not unprecedented situation in our delay-filled legal system, emblematic of just how much further we must go in ensuring justice is truly served in this country.
Until investigators get to the bottom of this case, there will be much speculation as to what exactly happened to Mr Charles last Saturday and why. But already, people who have in the past been freed of murder charges have been made weary of the many possibilities.
“Somebody might hear you were charged with their family member’s murder and don’t like you, whether you did it or not,” noted one such individual this week. “What about the people who feel I killed their brother or their sister and I was never there? I can’t put down my guard.”
The presumption of innocence is not merely a legal principle, it is a moral one.
Unfortunately, just as human life is under siege, so too are the ethical values which should govern us being challenged by criminals and those who judge prematurely and then purport to take the law into their own hands.
The irony is that Mr Charles fought against such disorder and judgment. His successful challenge of an oppressive and flawed bail law was the quintessential example of the legal system doing what it should: bringing about orderly change. His death will not erase that achievement.