An independent prosecutor and the rule of law
by Dr Garrey Dennie and Marlon Bute
An unprecedented crisis now confronts the justice system in SVG. The Commissioner of Police has acknowledged that the Deputy Speaker, Ashelle Morgan, and an Assistant Director of Public Prosecutor, Karim Nelson, are persons of interest in the investigation of allegations made by Cornelius John that an assailant beat and shot him at his home on April 13, 2021. Graphic in the description of the violence directed against Mr John and frightening in the implications that a man’s home provides no sanctuary from such barbarism, the allegations have punctured Vincentians’ confidence in the rule of law.
This arises from two interlocking features. First, our country simply has no record of misconduct in the Office of the Speaker or the Office of the Director of Prosecution that rises to the level of the violence alleged by Mr Cornelius John. Certainly, St Vincent and the Grenadines has seen too many shooting crimes. And certainly, people in high office have been guilty of malfeasance while in office. But the allegations of such horrendous violence committed by public officials while in office is an entirely new phenomenon.
Second, in the absence of any arrest of the alleged assailants, many Vincentians have publicly questioned on whether we have a two-tiered system of justice – one for the well connected, and one for the less well connected. Certainly, structural inequities in our system of justice exist. Barring murder trials, we do not guarantee legal representations for the accused in a court of law. Consequently, the poor often face the justice system without access to legal representation. Notwithstanding these inequities, it would be an extraordinary breach of legal norms if wealth, status, or office allow violent offenders to act with impunity that places them beyond the reach of the law. But this is the precise fear being expressed by too many Vincentians.
This should surprise no one. In the ordinary unfolding of such matters, alleged assailants are usually arrested and charged if the police establishes that there is probable cause that a crime has been committed. The alleged perpetrators are, of course, deemed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. And the accused should be offered every protection of due process guaranteed by law.
SEARCHLIGHT has joined several publications and individuals in shining light on this grave matter. And on its editorial page it has correctly held that justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done. Less clear, however, is precisely how we can guarantee such an outcome.
Note, in the ordinary resolution of such matters, the Police and the DPP’s office bear the responsibility of shepherding justice. However, the question arises, can the DPP’s office faithfully carry out the duties of their office when one of their own is a “person of interest?” Furthermore, should they carry this burden?
Faced with those same questions the American legal system has often answered, no. Quite simply, the conflict of interest overwhelms any capacity of prosecutors to persuade the public that police and prosecutors can impartially investigate and prosecute their own. Justice demands impartiality. It demands transparency. And in a democratic society, it demands public confidence that the outcome is governed by law, not by whim.
None of these is possible where these conflicts of interest exist. The way forward here then is clear: the DPP should forthwith acknowledge this conflict and call upon our sister Caribbean Islands or the Caribbean Court of Justice to appoint an independent Prosecutor to take charge of this matter. If we need to pass new laws to enable the appointment of an independent prosecutor, we should do so. In this way we guarantee that Justice would be done without fear or favour to any party regardless of their station.
One of these days Soufriere would return to quiescence. One of these days Covid-19 would be gone. These are grave threats. But a collapse in the idea that we live under the rule of law cannot be tolerated. That is our gravest threat. An independent prosecutor eliminates that threat.