Privy Council awards $275,000 to murdered ex-murder accused

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Former murder accused Akili Charles. Photo by Roger Jacob

FORMER murder accused Akili Charles, the man whose litigation led to the court’s historic ruling that people charged with murder can apply for bail, will be awarded the compensation that a court ordered for the breach of his rights.

Charles was shot dead in July, months before the case was heard in the Privy Council.

In a ruling on Thursday, five Law Lords said Charles was prejudiced when his preliminary inquiry had to be restarted because of the short-lived judicial appointment of former chief magistrate Marcia Ayers-Caesar. In its ruling, the Privy Council overturned the decision of the Court of Appeal, which, in turn, had reversed an earlier ruling by Justice Kevin Ramcharan, who ordered that Charles should get $275,000 in compensation.

Charles and his neighbours Chicki Portillo, Kareem Gomez, Levi Joseph, Israel “Arnold” Lara and Anton Cambridge were charged with murdering Russell Antoine on May 13, 2010. The preliminary inquiry in the case went on for almost nine years and had reached an advanced stage when Ayers-Caesar took up a promotion in April 2017.

The inquiry was then put on hold while a lawsuit from the Office of the Attorney General pursued a statutory interpretation lawsuit over what procedure should be adopted in situations where judicial officers leave their office with part-heard cases still pending. In January 2019, High Court Judge Carol Gobin eventually ruled that such cases had to restart.Charles and his neighbours’ case was then restarted and completed within three months. All six men were freed of the charges by Chief Magistrate Maria Busby Earle-Caddle, who ruled that the State failed to present sufficient evidence to sustain the charge.

Charles then pursued a separate case in which he claimed his constitutional rights to equality before the law and protection of the law were infringed by the restart of the case and consequent delay. In March 2020, Ramcharan upheld Charles’ case and ordered $150,000 in compensation, which represented the legal fees Charles incurred for the second preliminary inquiry, and $125,000 in vindicatory damages for the additional time he was made to spend in harsh remand conditions before he and his co-accused were eventually freed.

Last year, the Court of Appeal ruled it was wrong to find that Charles’s constitutional rights were infringed. It also held Ramcharan should not have made findings in respect of the Judicial and Legal Service Commission (JLSC) on the handling of the Ayers-Caesar debacle, since it was not an issue raised by Charles in his case. Lords Briggs, Kitchin, Hamblen, Burrows and Richards presided over Charles’s challenge.

In the ruling, Hamblen, who wrote the unanimous decision, repeated the words of Gobin’s judgment, which, although ruling against Charles, described the Ayers-Caesar debacle as “a colossal misstep.”Hamblen said while it was true Charles did not raise the JLSC’s role in Ayers-Caesar’s short-lived judicial appointment, it was not necessary for him to do so in a constitutional claim against the State.“The claimant does not have to assert that a specific state body, or that individuals within such a body, are responsible for the breach of his or her constitutional rights. What matters is establishing that the State is so responsible.

“In particular, the State bore responsibility for the ‘colossal misstep’ which resulted in the cutting short of the first preliminary inquiry and the need to start a second preliminary inquiryde novo and the consequential prejudice and unfairness suffered by the appellant. That prejudice was not limited to the refusal of the State to pay the legal fees of the appellant’s counsel of choice.”

That attorney was Wayne Sturge, who was described as “one of the country’s most renowned members of the criminal bar.”

The Privy Council said it was never disputed that an arm of the State was responsible and at fault for what happened in Charles’s preliminary inquiry.”Unless it was to be suggested that no arm of the State bore responsibility, which it never has been, then which arm was so responsible did not matter.”

On the right to protection of the law, the Law Lords held it should have been obvious that if Ayers-Caesar were to be made a judge, consideration would have had to be given to the cases she left part-heard, including death-penalty cases, given her status as chief magistrate.“It also was, or should have been, obvious that unless appropriate steps were taken there was a real risk that all such proceedings would have to be started overde novo, with very severe consequences for many defendants. The resulting ‘public outcry’ is entirely understandable.

“No evidence has been proffered which puts forward a reason for, or a rational explanation of, the decision which was reached. In all the circumstances, the Board considers that it is justifiable to conclude that the ‘colossal misstep was irrational and unreasonable, although the Board would accept that that does not mean that it was arbitrary,” Hamblen said.

The Privy Council added, “As Gobin J found, what happened was a ‘travesty of justice’ and for the appellant, it was ‘oppressive.’ As the judge (Ramcharan) found, there was a ‘sequence of events which are so egregious that it would be unconscionable for a court to countenance the claimant suffering as a result of it.”

As to the “dire consequences” Charles faced, the judgment pointed out he had been financially ruined because of the first inquiry lasting five years; had no means to pay for a lawyer for the new inquiry; and had become suicidal because his one shred of hope was dashed when he was told the PI would have to be restarted. The Law Lords held in Charles’s case, the only prospect for him if his inquiry restarted was legal aid, and counsel appointed “would not have been of Mr Sturge’s experience and renown,” and he did all he could by filing the various legal challenges.“In all the circumstances, the Board is satisfied that the appellant suffered real and substantial prejudice and that this was caused by the State’s ‘colossal misstep’ and not any choice or decision on his part.”

They also held he was entitled to compensatory and vindicatory damages. “Prolonged incarceration in the remand prison conditions in Trinidad and Tobago would clearly be an appropriate ground for awarding vindicatory damages (in so far as not covered by the compensatory damages).”

They also said what happened in the end, after Charles was told in 2017 his five-year-old inquiry had to be restarted, “did not alter or affect the period of nearly two years of suffering which had already occurred,” until the second came to an end in 2019. In allowing the appeal, the Privy Council judges directed that Ramcharan’s orders should be restored.

Charles was represented by Anand Ramlogan, SC, Rowan Pennington-Benton, Adam Riley and Ganesh Saroop. Peter Knox, KC, and Daniel Goldblatt represented the Attorney General.