Six men from Diego Martin, who spent almost a decade behind bars awaiting trial for murder, were freed on Tuesday after a magistrate found there was insufficient evidence for them to face a judge and jury.
The case against the accused, who were charged with murdering a Cepep worker, were among the 53 matters which had to be restarted due to the short-lived judicial appointment of former chief magistrate Marcia Ayers-Caesar.
After spending almost a decade on remand, Akili Charles, Chicki Portillo, Kareem Gomez, Levi Joseph and Israel “Arnold” Lara walked out of the Port-of-Spain Magistrates’ Court as free men.
Ayers-Caesar’s successor, Chief Magistrate Maria Busby-Earle-Caddle, upheld a no-case submission at the end of their second preliminary inquiry on Tuesday.
Their co-accused, Anton Cambridge, was also discharged by Busby-Earle-Caddle but he did not get to join in their emotional reunion with a group of their elated relatives and friends who gathered outside the courthouse. Cambridge was instead remanded into custody on a separate murder charge which is yet to go on trial.
In her oral decision, Busby-Earle-Caddle ruled in favour of the group’s lawyers, who claimed there was insufficient evidence linking the men to the murder of Russell Antoine on May 13, 2010.
Antoine, 27, was walking along Upper Cemetery Street, Covigne Road, Diego Martin, when he was shot several times. Antoine’s friends, Marcus and Joseph Spring, were wounded in the incident and the group was charged with shooting them with intent to cause them grievous bodily harm. The group was also freed of the additional charges.
The defence argued that the evidence of the main witness was insufficient to link the accused to the crime, as he only knew the attackers by their aliases and was never given the opportunity to point them out in an identification parade.
The second witness could not be found to testify against the accused and the defence argued that the evidence of a third witness, who gave a report to police nine months after the men were charged, was fabricated.
The State countered that the statement of the missing witnesss, in addition to the testimony of the two other witnesses, was sufficient to make out a prima facie case.
The group’s case was one of 53 that were affected when Ayers-Caesar decided to take up a position as a High Court Judge in April 2017.
Most of the affected prisoners agreed to have their preliminary inquiries restarted before Busby-Earle-Caddle and their cases have since been determined.
However, the group elected to put their case on hold pending the determination of a High Court interpretation lawsuit which sought to determine the process to be followed when a judicial official leaves office suddenly and left cases undone, as in Ayers-Caesar’s case.
In an interview with Guardian Media as they greeted their relatives, many of whom attended all hearings of both inquiries, the men said they were pleased with the outcome despite the delay caused by the Ayers-Caesar débâcle.
“At the end of the day we get lock up since 2010 and it had a lack of evidence in the case. Marcia Ayers-Caesar was to send us home but she went to be a judge and that set we back in prison for about three years.
“Thank God the new magistrate was fair and everything work out for us,” Portillo said.
Portillo, Joseph and Lara were represented by Criston J Williams, while Wayne Sturge and Danielle Rampersad represented the others.
In January, Justice Carol Gobin ruled that all of Marcia Ayers-Caesar’s part-heard cases would have to be restarted.
As part of the case, Akili Charles filed a judicial review application contending that it would be unfair for him and his co-accused to face a second preliminary inquiry, as he had already spent more than $150,000 in legal fees in the first one before Ayers-Caesar.
Gobin dismissed Charles’ claim as she said there was no legal avenue for resolving the issue besides restarting the case before a new magistrate.
However, she described what transpired and how it affected Charles and the others as a travesty of justice.
“The stain on the administration of justice will remain indelible long after the cries and protests of justifiably angry suffering prisoners have gone quiet and long after the families of the victims who, too, have been waiting for justice to be done, resign themselves to further delay,” Gobin said.