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Jamaica Works to Distance Itself From British Justice

The country, which strongly favors the death penalty, wants to cut colonial apron strings.

August 19, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

KINGSTON, Jamaica — Poor, young and idle, Randall Dixon was one of the usual suspects when Det. Cpl. Phillip Gordon ended up dead in a chaotic firefight between four bank robbers and four policemen.

Despite witness testimony that Dixon wasn't involved in the 1996 Western Union Bank robbery, he was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to die by hanging.

Dixon, now 37, has had his sentence struck down by the Privy Council in London on appeal because videotape from security cameras -- suppressed by police for the last seven years -- proved he wasn't there.

That might be expected to make Jamaicans question their judicial system, which lawyers and human rights advocates here say is so flawed that courts have repeatedly condemned innocents to the gallows.

Instead, the ruling angered many Jamaicans. They see the high court in faraway London as a vestige of colonial rule trying to impose its anti-death-penalty values on this eye-for-an-eye Caribbean culture.

Politicians have seized on the Privy Council's "abolitionist" rulings to persuade Jamaicans they need to cut the colonial apron strings and replace the high court of the British Commonwealth with an emerging Caribbean Court of Justice. It is expected to open its main office in Trinidad in November.

Jamaica has signed on to the regional court project in what legal and social analysts say is dismay with one of the world's most horrific murder rates and high-court rulings that have prevented every planned execution since 1988. Despite the cost and uncertainty about how the multinational Caribbean court will operate, Jamaicans are largely in favor of it because they expect it to carry out more hangings.

"The last polls show about 82% in favor of the death penalty, even though there is no more evidence here than anywhere else that it acts as a deterrent," said Nancy Anderson, a defense attorney and activist with the Independent Jamaica Council for Human Rights.

Given the corruption of law enforcement and the national judiciary, she said, Jamaica needs to retain the Privy Council as a safeguard against miscarriages of justice that might get by a novice regional court whose judges might be inexperienced political appointees.

"When your evidence goes against what the police are saying, 95% of the time the courts will find for the police," said Anderson, who was a member of the defense team for Dixon and a co-defendant tried on a lesser charge.

Jamaica formally embraced the Caribbean Court of Justice in June, when Prime Minister P.J. Patterson made his country the eighth to formally sign on to the regional integration project. The court is expected to adjudicate trade issues and serve as court of last resort for as many as 14 island countries.

Patterson drew Jamaicans to his argument for the court in December, when he called for a resumption of hangings over the objections of the Privy Council and made the threat of execution the cornerstone of a new anti-crime program. Noting the clear majority in favor of capital punishment, Patterson vowed that "we intend to heed the voice of the people."

It is not just frustration over the Privy Council's commutation of dozens of death sentences. After four decades of independence from Britain, Jamaicans also resent the residual influence from British institutions.

The decision to join the Caribbean Court of Justice "is clothed in the view that it is finally time to break from Britain and complete the process of decolonization," said Clinton Hutton, a professor of government at the University of the West Indies in Mona, outside the capital. "Anyone who supports the Privy Council is discredited as having a colonial mentality."

It may be years before the court is ready to hear appeals from member nations, said Hutton, but Jamaicans are eagerly awaiting what they see as full autonomy in matters of justice.

Jamaica's small intellectual and legal communities, on the other hand, look askance at the regional court, at least for now, arguing that the money it will need would be better spent at home to reform corrupt law enforcement and upgrade courts.

Jamaica is a poor country with an ailing economy: Most rural judges don't even have lawbooks, a shortage of stenographers means a trial transcript takes an average of 14 months, and courtrooms are so decrepit that one judge sitting for a hearing recently fell through rotted floorboards.

Yet Jamaica must borrow millions to cover the costs of starting up the court. Jamaica's foreign debt is already more than 2 1/2 times what its economy puts out every year in goods and services. So some politicians are arguing against joining the court strictly on a financial basis, since the services of the Privy Council are available to former British colonies gratis.

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