Lawyer pleads for exception

| 14/05/2014

(CNS): A defence attorney urged a judge to make an exception in the mandatory minimum sentence for firearms possession when he pleaded the case for his 53-year-old client convicted of robbery. When John Cohen Ebanks was arrested ten days after a courier was robbed outside the offices of an insurance firm in George Town he not only admitted his part in the daylight heist he also revealed the identity of his co-conspirators and agreed to give evidence against them. Clyde Allen said his client’s significant cooperation, among other issues, amounted to exceptional circumstances and despite the mandatory jail term for possession of a gun, the court was able to use its discretion in some cases.

Although all firearms possession attracts a minimum sentence of ten years following conviction after trial and a potential discount down to seven years following an immediate guilty plea, judges can, if they feel the circumstances are truly exceptional, hand down a lesser term.

Ebanks is one of four men accused of plotting and then robbing a Sprint Courier driver in the parking lot of BritCay Insurance on Eastern Avenue in a joint enterprise in October 2012. The West Bay man admitted that he was involved in the planning and surveillance ahead of the heist and drove one of two cars used by the robbers to the scene. He said he took Manuel Carter, one of his co-defendants, to the car park of the insurance firm and waited while he held up the courier driver and took over CI$8,100 and US$500 in cash from him at gunpoint.

Having circled around during the daylight heist, Ebanks then picked Carter up and the two men fled the scene, abandoning the getaway car behind Puritan Cleaners across from the crime scene. They then ran on foot down to the waterfront, where they were collected by Brandon Liberal, who was driving the second car, and the men all headed back to West Bay. Both Carter and Liberal, who had denied their part in the heist, finally changed their pleas to guilty at the last minute on the morning their trial was scheduled to begin in February.

Ebanks had told police he received $1,000 from the loot as he did not know that Carter had actually taken over $8,500. The court heard he used the cash to pay debts and medical expenses for his sick mother as well as to buy cocaine. Ebanks is understood to have had a severe drug addiction but since his arrest he has been held on remand at George Town police station for more than 18 months and has dealt with his drug problem with no assistance from counsellors or health professionals.

The 53-year,old has been held at the George Town lock-up, which has been condemned by prison inspectors as unfit for human habitation, since October 2012 because of the risks he faces having agreed to give evidence against his co-conspirators. Although the police were able to arrest and find Carter as a result of the clues he left at the scene of the abandoned car, the police said that without Ebanks’ assistance they would not have been able to charge either Liberal or a fourth man in the case. Tariq Crawford has still not entered a plea to the charges in the case as a result of on-going disputes over his fitness to plead.

What was described as Ebanks’ significant assistance to the police was highlighted by his defence lawyer Clyde Allen when he appeared before Justice Charles Quin Wednesday on Ebanks’ behalf.

Following revelations by Director of Public Prosecutions Cheryl Richards, QC, that the defendant had been cooperative throughout the entire time and agreed to give evidence against the others in the criminal gang, the judge thanked Ebanks for his willingness to cooperate and noted it was “a shame that other people didn’t have more courage” to do the same thing.

Allen pressed the point that if ever there was an exceptional circumstance with regards to the mandatory minimum sentence, this was the offender. The lawyer argued that sentences passed are often done so with deterrence in mind but in this case the judge could send a positive message about how co-operation can be rewarded as he noted the wider reluctance of anyone to cooperate in criminal cases in what is a very small jurisdiction.

Allen said his client had been very helpful to the police, despite the risks he faced, and noted that he had committed the crime as a result of his need for money to pay medical bills and food for his sick mother, who has since died during Ebanks’ time on remand.

While the attorney accepted it was not an excuse for criminal behaviour, it was, nevertheless, the motive for Ebanks’ involvement. He also said his client had tried to pull out of the robbery at the last minute but he had been threatened by his co-conspirators if he tried “to chicken out”.

Allen also said that while his client had been part of the enterprise, he never had possession of the gun and was not the mastermind in the plot, just the driver. Ebanks also stated that when Liberal had handed Carter the gun to hold up the courier, he had warned him not to fire the weapon. As a result Ebanks was under the impression that no one would be shot and the gun was to frighten, but not hurt, the courier.

However, the judge noted that the only way to ensure no one gets shot was if no one had a gun.

The judge heard that while Ebanks was very co-operative and has been a model prisoner during his stay in the George Town lock-up, he has a long rap sheet. Ebanks was said to have 59 previous convictions for theft, burglary and drugs as a result of his battle with cocaine.

With one more defendant still to be dealt with in the case, Justice Quin adjourned the sentencing hearing Wednesday evening and said he would hand down his decision in July when the situation regarding Crawford, the fourth defendant in the case, was hopefully also resolved.

Ebanks was remanded back in custody to the George Town lock up.

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