DPP, Judiciary in mix-up over Dana Seetahal’s murder file

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Dana Seetahal, SC, outside of the Hall of Justice. –

The Judiciary says it has done its part in the trial of the ten men accused of the shocking murder of Senior Counsel Dana Seetahal in 2014, as it had sent the completed notes of evidence to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in January.

In a statement issued at 5.40 pm on May 4, the Judiciary responded to the DPP’s claims that his office had not received the notes – almost four years after the conclusion of the preliminary inquiry.

It said, “For matters prior to December 2023, Section 25 of the Indictable Offences (Preliminary Enquiry) Act requires that committal bundles are transmitted to the DPP. Due to its size, the committal bundle in the case of The State vs Rajaee Ali and others, which contains over 8,100 pages, was sent to the Office of the DPP via file transfer protocol (FTP) in three parts, on December 20, (2023) December 21, 2023 and January 5, 2024.”

The ten men were committed to stand trial in July 2020 by then senior magistrate Indrani Cedeno. Cedeno was appointed a High Court judge in January along with two other magistrates.

Cedeno had to certify the notes of evidence before they could be sent to the Office of the DPP.

DPP Roger Gaspard told Newsday up to May 3, no notes of evidence had reached his office. He said under the Preliminary Inquiry Act, before an indictment is filed, the notes of evidence must be obtained and reviewed.

“My office would have made several requests of the Judiciary since the committal for the notes of evidence.

“Up to 4.30 pm on Friday I had not received them.”

Several people pointed out the sad irony that a woman who advocated for criminal justice reform, and made significant contributions in the Senate to improve the justice system, had become a victim of the same slow system.

Around 12.05 am on May 4, 2014, Seetahal was driving her Volkswagen SUV to her One Woodbrook Place apartment when two vehicles blocked the road near the Woodbrook Youth Facility on Hamilton Holder Street, Port of Spain. The occupants of the vehicles got out and shot her five times.

At the time of her assassination, she was junior prosecutor in the trial of 12 men charged with the December 2006 murder of businesswoman Vindra Naipaul-Coolman, which began in March 2014.

THE ACCUSED: Top row, from left: Rajaee Ali, Devaughn Cummings, Ishmael Ali, Ricardo Stewart and Earl Richards. Bottom row from left: Gareth Wiseman, Hamid Ali, Kevin Parkinson, Leston Gonzales and Roget Boucher. –

But years earlier she had been a special state prosecutor seeking the State’s interest in a case against the Jamaat al Muslimeen for recompensation for the damage they inflicted during the 1990 attempted coup.

In 2008, she was also a special state prosecutor when the late Jamaat leader Yasin Abu Bakr faced several criminal charges, including promoting a terrorist act and sedition, based on comments he made during an Eid-ul-Fitr sermon in November 2005.

In 2015, several members of a Carapo-based mosque associated with the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen were arrested and charged with Seetahal’s murder. Three of the 11 men charged were already in custody for other unrelated offences. One of the accused was subsequently freed on basis of a lack of evidence.

In addition, on July 25, 2015, the 11 accused and three others were charged with being members of a gang during the period March 14, 2014-July 24, 2015. Since then, charges have been dropped against the only woman involved, one man has died since he was arrested and another could no longer be found.

Justice system failing

Seetahal’s sister Susan Francois called for a swift and transparent trial to begin and for the authorities to redouble their efforts to ensure those responsible for her sister’s death face the full force of the law.

In a statement, she said anything less would be “a slap in the face” to Seetahal’s memory, to the ideals of justice and fairness she championed throughout her life and to the victims of violence whose cries for justice had been ignored.

Friend and colleague Sophia Chote, SC, recalled Seetahal championed expeditious justice, the rights of women and children and, as an independent senator and contributor to two daily newspapers, addressed not only criminal law, but issues of national interest.

One of the things Seetahal pushed for was the abolition of preliminary inquiries. Chote said in 2000 then chief justice Michael de la Bastide set up a Remand Court Committee in a move to expedite the remand process.

“She was one of the active proponents of the legislation to abolish preliminary inquiries. There were different pieces of legislation tabled before Parliament. Some of them may even have been debated, but the Administration of Justice (Indictable Proceedings) Act only actually came into effect last December.”

Francois said while remembering Seetahal’s life through prayer, speeches and memorials was “profoundly poignant,” it was “deeply ironic” that, as a tireless advocate for justice and the rule of law, she had been denied justice in her own country.

“Her life mattered to her family and to the country. Her untimely demise sent shockwaves through the nation, sparking widespread outrage.

“Yet, despite a decade passing since her senseless murder, justice continues to elude her.

“The lack of resolution in Dana Seetahal’s case is not just a failing in our justice system, it is a betrayal of her legacy and an affront to the principles she stood for. The delay in bringing her perpetrators to trial serves as a stark reminder that criminals are free to continue their criminal acts without consequences. There is the urgent need for accountability.”

Pointing out that since 2014 there have been approximately 5,000 murders, as well as 12,000 serious crimes annually, Francois also called on the authorities to take “meaningful steps” to reduce violent crime and provide support to the families of victims.

She suggested counselling services for victims, installing working cameras at critical points and removing taxes on security systems such as cameras, alarm systems and security fences.

“I remember observing the hard work of diligent police officers and thinking, on the one hand, how I appreciated their efforts, but knowing that for most murder victims the crime would not be solved.

“As well, if a prominent person like Dana cannot get justice after ten years, what hope is there for their murdered relatives?”

A national icon

Chote said Seetahal was also a strong supporter of resources for the Office of the DPP, which was where they met and where Seetahal was her mentor.

She said back in 1989 the DPP’s office was poorly resourced, with not enough attorneys, equipment, administrative staff or space and it was “quite sad” to see that the circumstances there had not changed.

She was well respected as a practitioner and an academic across the Caribbean, mentored people who were now judges and held high positions across the region and wrote Commonwealth Caribbean Criminal Practice and Procedure, which was the premier text for law students in the Caribbean.

Seetahal also received a number of awards, including a Hubert Humphrey Fulbright Fellowship, an award for national service from the Tunapuna/Piarco Regional Corporation and the UWI Distinguished Alumni Award.

After her death her almae maters, the Florida State University, Tallahassee, School of Criminology and the University of Minnesota held remembrances in recognition of her life and achievements.

She was also awarded the Chaconia Medal (Gold) posthumously in 2014.

“This woman was a national icon, a national-award winner,” said Chote. “She was known across the Caribbean.

“But the thing about Dana is, she never wanted to be treated differently from anybody else.

“I think ten years from charge to trial is a very long time. I think Dana herself would make the point that, unfortunately, because the backlog is so heavy in this jurisdiction, that ten years has not become unusual.

“I do wish, though, that the family could have some resolution. And I do wish that this matter can come up for trial soon, because I think this is a wound in society’s heart.”

Listing some of her other achievements, Israel Rajah-Khan, SC, president of the Criminal Bar Association and Seetahal’s colleague in the Naipaul-Coolman case, said she was a senior tutor at the Hugh Wooding Law School, she designed and implemented the Criminal Law Clinic, which was housed at Justitia Omnibus Law Chambers, and prosecuted in many high-profile cases during her time at the DPP’s office.

He said she was also an “outstanding” independent senator for three terms, during which she debated national issues such as speedy trials, jury and judge-alone trials, categories of murder, prison reform and the rehabilitation of convicted prisoners.

He added that, for her invaluable contribution to law and justice for all, it would have been more appropriate to confer on her the nation’s highest award, the Order of the Republic of TT, rather than the Chaconia Gold Medal.

In this 2017 file photo, Susan Francois, left, and attorney Sophia Chote mark the anniversary of Dana Seetahal’s murder during a silent protest outside of the Port of Spain Magistrates Court. – File photo by Angelo Marcelle

Khan said it was unfair to the accused men and Seetahal’s relatives and friends to have the matter “hanging in the air” for so long. He said the country anxiously waited for the closure of the pending trial against those charged with her murder.

He too pointed out: “It is very ironic that she fought and struggled with the powers that be to improve the criminal justice system, for example speedy trials for accused persons and the victims of crime – and her own murder is yet to be tried.”

Seetahal’s colleague Larry Lalla, SC, described her as his lecturer, mentor and friend, saying he had no doubt she existed in peace and love in the great beyond.

“It is unfortunate that after the passage of such a long time finality has not been brought to the burning question of why? Why was she taken away from us in the prime of her life and career?

“The TT public and indeed the legal profession need an answer to this question. We continue to hope.”

Her nephew Devanan Persad added, “This prolonged wait for justice exemplifies the axiom ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’

“Our reality underscores the severe outcomes of under-resourced institutions tasked with administering justice, resulting in lengthy court processes, case backlogs, and, tragically, a denial of justice for those in need of closure.

“I believe the necessary resources should be promptly allocated to the relevant institutions responsible for ensuring justice is served, thereby preventing further instances of prolonged suffering and lack of resolution.”

Defence: It is a complex case

Roshan Tota-Maharaj, attorney for one of the murder accused, Rajaee Ali, said he believed it would take years before the case went to trial.

Explaining the delays, Tota-Maharaj said originally 11 men, all members of the Jamaat, were charged with the capital offence of murder as well as for associated gang offences in July 2015.

In 2016 they appeared at the Port of Spain Eighth Magistrate’s Court for the preliminary inquiry, where the magistrate had to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to send the case to the High Court.

He recalled the hearings were every Friday at the Magistrates Court. Since it was a high-profile matter, from 2016 up to the pandemic in 2020, several streets near the Magistrates Court would be blocked off from 6 am, causing considerable traffic in the city.

He said, in general, when other courts were doing preliminary inquiries for murder, there would be several consecutive sessions each week. But because of the heightened security measures, sessions in this matter were limited to once a week.

After the pandemic struck TT, the accused appeared virtually.

When the preliminary inquiry was concluded in July 2020, they were committed to stand trial in the High Court by then senior magistrate Cedeno.

“Apart from the fact it was 11 persons charged, it was very very voluminous in terms of evidence and witnesses. There were approximately 100 witnesses in the matter, and certain parts were extremely complex.

“That’s part of the reason why it took so long – and all the matters were being heard together. The evidence for the murder was also relied on for the gang charges, so they were heard together, everything in one. So even those who were not on the murder charge, they had to appear every Friday for five years.”

But the DPP’s office made an administrative error, in that the gang charges were laid indictably as opposed to summarily. As a result, in 2016, Cedeno dismissed the gang-related charges.

The State appealed the decision and in 2020 it was overturned by the Appeal Court. The charges were re-laid and the case for the gang charges had to begin anew as a separate case.

In 2022, ten of the accused were granted bail, but a week later, an emergency court hearing was called and bail was withdrawn.

The matter is still before the Port of Spain Third Court.

Tota-Maharaj said his client recently expressed disappointment in the delay, as time was just passing and he was getting older. He said his daughter did her SEA exam but the last time he had seen her was when she was one or two years old.

The other accused were also affected, as some of their families were falling apart during their long absence due to deaths, divorce and other issues.

“Yes, they are on remand for serious offences, but there must always be fairness to all, and I believe fairness dictates that the justice in a judicial system has to be done quickly.

“Justice delayed is justice denied, regardless of the circumstances, including the public and the family members of the deceased. Everyone wants to have some closure in the matter.

“And then there’s the fact that this took so long and now there is another set of years before we could even think about having the matter go before the High Court and adjudicated upon. It’s really something that weighs heavily on everyone involved.”

He said when a magistrate made the order for the accused to stand trial, all the years of proceedings had to go into a transcript and sent to the DPP.

“Then, within the office of the DPP, the DPP would obviously say there is a huge backlog of cases he has to do on a first-come-first-served system. So at the office of the DPP we’re looking at another few years before the DPP himself reviews the transcript and then files the indictment in High Court.

“Unfortunately, even though this took so long, the DPP filing the indictment is only the beginning stages. In fairness, it’s a lot, but still, if there isn’t enough resources, then get the resources one way or the other. Because we’re looking at a lengthy number of years before this matter could realistically start.

“In the meantime the accused are suffering, the public wants to know what’s happening, and the family members of the deceased need closure.”

Dana Seetahal career highlights:

1977 – Attended Hugh Wooding Law School.

1979 – Called to the bar.

1980-1991 – Worked at several public, including the Office of the DPP, and private institutions.

1987 – Served as a magistrate for a year.

1995-2007 – Course director and senior lecturer at Hugh Wooding Law School.

2001 – Published Commonwealth Caribbean Criminal Practice and Procedure.

2002 – Appointed Independent Senator in Parliament for three terms until 2010.

2006 – Made Senior Counsel.

2008 – Opened her own chambers, El Dorado Chambers, in Port of Spain.