A little over six years after being freed of kidnapping and murdering businesswoman Vindra Naipaul-Coolman, nine Diego Martin men are each set to receive $2.1 million in compensation, while the state will have to pay out some $20 million overall for the failed case.
High Court Master Martha Alexander ordered the compensation for Shervon and Devon Peters, their brother Anthony Gloster, Joel Fraser, Ronald Armstrong, brothers Keida and Jameel Garcia, Marlon Trimmingham, and Antonio Charles yesterday, as she delivered her decision in their malicious prosecution case.
The group filed the lawsuit almost four years after they were freed of the charges in late May 2016.
The Office of the Attorney General entered an appearance in the case but failed to defend it, leading the group’s legal team, led by Anand Ramlogan SC, to successfully obtain a default judgement against it in January 2021.
“The present matter, therefore, was a substantial one that the defendant chose neither to defend nor to call any evidence, save to appear at the assessment to be heard on quantum,” Master Alexander said.
In determining the appropriate compensation for the group, Master Alexander considered the evidence of clinical psychologist Isolde Ghent-Garcia, who conducted detailed psychological assessments on all the men except Gloster, who was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Diego Martin in late 2021.
Gloster’s father was allowed to continue to pursue the case and will now receive the compensation on behalf of his family, including his two grandchildren from his son.
In her reports, Ghent-Garcia stated that all eight men suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), major depression and generalised anxiety, which was a direct consequence of them spending almost a decade on remand before being freed.
“Despite the fact that they were all diagnosed with a similar medical condition, there were slight differences in how the condition manifested in and affected each claimant. Some had more adverse and debilitating reactions than others,” Master Alexander said.
She noted that Ghent-Garcia suggested that each of the men would have to undergo treatment, at a cost of $165,000 each, to address their psychological issues.
Master Alexander also rejected submissions from the AG’s Office that there was collusion and collaboration between Ghent-Garcia and the men because of the similarity of diagnosis.
“In fact, this court was stunned by the attack on the expert, made via submissions, in circumstances where counsel had failed to discredit the witness during the trial,” she said.
“In the view of the court, if each claimant suffered the same experiences, almost simultaneously, and gave evidence to that effect, this is not demonstrative of collusion but rather of a factual similarity of circumstances entitling each of compensation,” she added.
Master Alexander also strongly considered the “horrendous” prison conditions they had to endure before their eventual release.
“In fact, the witness statements might have similar contents, based on their similar experiences, but these were expressed differently, with some claimants focusing on the extreme heat, foul smells and cramped, unsanitary conditions and how those affected their sinuses and other health issues,” she said.
Master Alexander also considered the impact of the failed prosecution on the men’s reputations.
Stating that the case drew loud public outcry, Master Alexander noted that the men were teenagers or in their early 20s when they were charged.
“As they were marched to court, on the public streets, these claimants, then accused murderers, were greeted with insults, jeers, racial slurs and obscene language. They were made into public spectacles to quell public outcry against the murder and kidnapping of the victim,” she said, as she noted they also suffered injuries to their feelings.
In ordering $2 million each in general damages, Master Alexander applied an uplift for aggravated damages.
“The evidence of humiliation, loss of dignity, and shame could not be contested and the court accepted that the protracted exposure to such mistreatment would have affected these claimants mentally,” she said.
Master Alexander also ordered $100,000 in exemplary damages to mark the court’s disapproval and condemnation of the oppressive, arbitrary and unconstitutional actions of the prison officers who supervised the group while they were on remand.
The men claimed that they were forced to drink juice that was “sweetened” with salt, with one claiming to have suffered kidney malfunction as a result. They also claimed they suffered mental torture, as they were forced to listen in to younger inmates being raped by veteran residents.
“Such thuggish and outrageous treatment meted out to our citizens who are pulled out of society, imprisoned, and prosecuted for inordinately lengthy periods, are chilling and must not be allowed to reoccur,” Master Alexander said.
As part of her decision in the case, Master Alexander ordered the State to pay interest on the compensation at a rate of two and a half per cent per annum from when the case was filed in 2020.
She also ordered the State to pay the $68,000 for Ghent-Garcia’s expert evidence and the $200,000 in legal fees for the case.
The group was also represented by Renuka Rambhajan, Ganesh Saroop and Natasha Bisram.
The AG’s Office was represented by Karen Reid-Ballantyne and Amrita Ramsook.
About Naipaul-Coolman’s case
Vindra Naipaul-Coolman was abducted from her Chaguanas home on December 19, 2006.
A $122,000 ransom was paid by her family but she was not released and her body was never found.
Shervon and Devon Peters, their brother Anthony Gloster, Joel Fraser, Ronald Armstrong, brothers Keida and Jameel Garcia, Marlon Trimmingham, his brother Earl, Lyndon Charles, Allan “Scanny” Martin and Antonio Charles were eventually charged with the crime
During the trial before Justice Malcolm Holdip and a 12-member jury, State prosecutors contended that the former Xtra Foods chief executive was held captive in a house in Upper La Puerta, Diego Martin, before she was killed and dismembered.
Throughout the trial, defence attorneys pointed out multiple inconsistencies in the evidence.
They questioned the mental health of the State’s main witness Keon Gloster, who claimed that he was coerced by police into implicating the accused men and raised issues over a gun linked to the kidnapping crime scene being planted in one of the accused men’s homes.
When the trial was at an advanced stage, Martin and two fellow prisoners at the Port-of-Spain State Prison staged a daring escape during which a police officer was murdered. Martin was shot and killed by police in a shoot-out at the Port-of-Spain General Hospital.
Fraser was freed before the jury considered the case as Justice Holdip upheld a no-case submission alleging that there was insufficient evidence linking him to the crime.
The trial ended with the jury acquitting eight of the men and ordering a trial for Earl Trimmingham and Lyndon Charles.