Abolish jury trials for interior murder cases, new offences- DPP, CCJ judge, others

Last Updated on Sunday, 25 June 2023, 14:31 by Denis Chabrol

Director of Public Prosecutions, Shalimar Hack.

Guyana’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Shalimar Hack on Saturday recommended the scrapping of jury trials for murder accused in the interior regions, and offences such as money laundering, trafficking in persons and cybercrime because of the technical nature of the evidence.

She called on the Guyana government to amend the legislation to allow for judge-only trials as reasons should be provided for both decisions and sentencing.

“The new offences that are emerging in the world today and here in Guyana such as money laundering require technical evidence, the evidence of expert witnesses. A lawyer trained in the law is better suited to be the final judge in these cases,” said Ms Hack who was a panelist that discussed a lecture by Justice Jacob Wit of the Caribbean Court Justice on the topic “Re-Thinking Criminal Justice”,

Ms Hack added that new offences such as computer fraud and cybercrime offences have emerged with new technologies and linked to prevailing circumstances such as narco-trafficking and trafficking in persons. “Judge-alone trials are more suited for the hearing of these offences,” she reiterated. She reasoned that judge-only trials would see speedy hearing and determination of court cases, reduce backlogs and delays, fairer trials by judges based only on the available evidence. “Unlike a jury, he will be applying the law,” she added.

Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) judge, Jacob Wit.

She said it would be cheaper for judge-only murder trials to be conducted in the hinterland but also witnesses would be more comfortable in their own environment. She said that all murder cases for North West District and the Rupununi magisterial districts are heard in Demerara which not only costs more but the witnesses do no testify at their optimum. “Our experience is that those witnesses when they come out is that they are not comfortable and they don’t give the evidence as well as they would give that evidence if they were in the North West or the Rupununi magisterial districts and so it would be better to have a judge alone go to those districts and have the High Court trial done right there,” the DPP said.

In response to questions from attendees, Justice Wit said France and Germany provide for a mixture of juries of ordinary persons and judges. “There are many ways of getting the input of jurors,” he said. The major flaw in the jury system is that “you don’t get any reasons…they can convict or acquit for reasons that are not rational.” He said the judges would have to give reasons and that makes it easier to appeal.

Guyanese Attorney-at-Law Dharshan Ramdhani, who has practiced extensively as far as a judge in the Eastern Caribbean and the British Virgin Islands, described judge-only trials as a “remarkable innovation” if Guyana is to re-think criminal justice.

Retired Chief Justice of Belize, Guyanese Kenneth Benjamin.

Even if the Guyana government does not heed calls for the law to be amended to allow for judge-alone trials, Mr Ramdhani said a nine-month project was underway to revamp  sentencing guidelines for 10 to 15 offences. Over the past two months, several persons on the project have been unearthing 10-year old decisions. He said the judiciary would be asked to approve those guidelines.

Retired Chief Justice of Belize, Guyanese Kenneth Benjamin not only welcomed Justice Wit’s presentation and cited the need for a system of strict timelines, but also supported calls for an end to jury trials based on random choices or unexplained changes in decisions. “Jury trials are not sacrosanct and, having presided over a number of trials without a jury, it tells me that not only the trial can be accomplished much quicker but it also renders the ability to exclude the element of arbitrariness that you get out of juries,” he said. Justice Benjamin referred to research that showed that jurors had decided not based on law but how they viewed the case emotionally. Against that background, he said there was a strong possibility that jurors do not follow the directions of the judge in summing up.

Justice Benjamin cautioned that judicial reforms would make no sense without governmental executive injection of much needed resources or there would eventually be a backlog in the High Court. “If we don’t have judicial resources to back it up, it’s not going to go anywhere. It means, then, there has to be a lot of training and there has to be the support from the executive to supply the resources that are needed to make these rules really and truly practical and workable,” he said.  Mr Benjamin, who also served in the Eastern Caribbean, said lawyers would have to change their culture and accept systems such as case management, it would not work. “It was really like pulling teeth when we had to deal with case management both in St Lucia and in Belize. It took a while for lawyers to get on board and we had to practically hit them over the head to accept that case management was here to stay in criminal matters,” he added.

High Court Judge, Joanne Barlow (at left).

Prominent Guyanese Attorney-at-Law, Nigel Hughes queried lent his support for judge-only trials in matters that require specific expertise. “I certainly think there is a pretty strong argument for judge-only trials in highly technical matters or technical matters where you need experts,” he said. At the same time, he urged that the relevant authorities consider that judges tend to come from a particular education and social background and so might miss socio-economic circumstances that might impact on certain things such as determining criminal intent. In her response, DPP Hack noted that two recent CCJ decisions had emphasised the importance of victim impact statements to have more informed positions. “That will take care of the socioeconomic aspect because that is one of the aspects that the judge will be looking at and sometimes the jurors do not consider the law, expecting that the judge will consider the law and what ends up happening is that the case is judged on emotions,” she added.

Guyana High Court Judge, Joanne Barlow noted that since 1978, magistrates only have been treating with very serious offences such as money laundering, piracy, hijacking and robbery and “we trust them to judge alone.” Mr Hughes said magistrates sit in remote districts and so are exposed to those jurisdictions.