Murder conviction quashed

| 17/08/2010

(CNS): Full update — The Cayman Islands Court of Appeal has overturned the conviction of William McLaughlin Martinez for the murder of Brian Rankine Carter and remitted the case back to the Grand Court for retrial. The court allowed the appeal on Tuesday citing a misdirection by the trial judge to the jury. The defence team had put forwardtwo grounds for appeal: one was that the judge had given the wrong direction when the jury came back after retiring with a question and the second concerned a machete which fell out of the police chain of evidence. The president of the appeal court, Sir John Chadwick, said the court was satisfied that the appeal should be allowed on the first count alone.

Although the three appeal court judges briefly announced their decision from the bench, the president said the reasons would be placed in writing.

During the morning’s argument leading defence counsel set out their argument, which centred on a question asked by the jury some 25 minutes after the judge had finished his directions and the jury had been sent to deliberate.

The crown’s case against Martinez had depended heavily on the witness testimony of Jason Hinds, who was present on the night of the murder, 20 July 2009. Hinds, who was later convicted of accessory after the fact, had accused Martinez of the crime, and although he admitted being at the scene, he denied being a willing accomplice.

When Justice Alex Henderson summed up the case for the jury before they were sent to deliberate, among the many directions he gave he said the crux of the case depended on the testimony of Hinds. If the jury believed Hinds and felt his story was supported by forensic evidence then they should find Martinez guilty, but if they did not think that Hinds was a credible witness or believed his account then they must find the defendant not guilty.

“The sole issue in this case is whether the crown has made you sure the narrative of Mr Hinds is true,” the judge had said in his original direction.

The jury, however, sent back questions to the court asking for assistance around twenty minutes after retiring. They asked that if they were to “discount” the evidence of Hinds, could they convict on forensic evidence alone.

After discussions with both crown and defence counsel the judge agreed that he would redirect the jury to his previous comments about the need for the jury to believe Hinds’ credibility and that it was on his evidence that they should make their decision.

However, when Justice Henderson made the direction he did not repeat the comments he had made earlier regarding the fact that it was on Hinds’ statement that they must convict or acquit but instead he told them that they must consider all of the evidence and referred to his earlier directions without spelling them out again, thus, the defence argued, confusing the jury and making the conviction unsafe.

In the defence argument, presented by Mark Tomassi, lead counsel from the UK, and local attorney Nicholas Dixie of Mourant, the lawyers argued that when the trial judge directed the jury in the first instance, that in order to convict Martinez they had to believe Hinds’ story, he was perfectly correct.

 
The basis for the appeal came because, in response to the jury’s question, the judge had not repeated his very important earlier direction that the verdict must be based on the jury’s belief or disbelief in Hinds. Instead, he had changed the direction and said they must consider all the evidence.
 
“It was a second rate direction, a lesser … a subordinate direction,” Tomassi argued, adding the judge had misdirected the jury, who, by the very question, were clearly troubled by the testimony of Hinds from the very start of their deliberations.
 
Solicitor General Cheryl Richards QC for the crown argued that the judge had not given a different direction but merely a summary of his earlier comments. She said the judge was effectively telling the jury that they must still consider only the testimony of Hinds as he had referred to this point so many times in his original direction. The jury could be in no doubt, she noted, that their belief in Hinds was pivotal to their decision.
 
She said the trial judge’s re-direction and answer to the jury’s question was not inconsistent with his earlier direction. Richards argued that the jury’s question was simply one of clarification of how they should identify the main issues for consideration and that the court could not speculate that the jury had already made a decision one way or another about Hinds’ credibility.
 
The crown’s QC said that the judge’s response to the question was, in effect, telling them that they could not convict only on forensic evidence if they did not believe Hinds’ story. “The jury were asking how should we address this case and the learned trial judge reminded them that the issue of Hinds was front and centre,” Richards stated.
 
However, the Court of Appeal judges disagreed with the crown and quashed the conviction, ordering another trial to be set in the Grand Court. Martinez is currently serving a mandatory life sentence and, despite the decision of the court, he will remain in custody until his retrial date.
 
In the wake of the decision, defence attorney Nicholas Dixie told CNS, “The Court of Appeal has patiently and carefully considered the arguments put forward by the parties and thoroughly reviewed all the relevant material. Our client is understandably relieved that the court has allowed his appeal but his future naturally remains uncertain at this time. We share the hope that this case will finally be completed soon.”
 
The key witness in the case, Jason Hinds, is a Jamaican national who, local law enforcement officials have now confirmed, was recently deported as a result of having served his sentence for his conviction of accessory after the fact. The crown made no comment on the appeal court’s decision.
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