Police say new laws lead to convictions
The Cayman Islands’ top lawyer said Thursday that the Caribbean criminal justice system should move away from reliance on eyewitness testimony in criminal court cases.
Attorney General Sam Bulgin said forensic sciences in the region need serious improvements, noting that many smaller jurisdictions don’t even have the access or resources Cayman has with its crime lab.
“There is a direct correlation with witness protection and the need for jurisdictions to enhance their evidence gathering,” Mr. Bulgin told attendees gathered Thursday at the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort for a regional attorneys general crime fighting workshop. “Witnesses are being shot, threatened … this is a growing problem in many of our jurisdictions. More and more persons are becoming reluctant to provide statements at criminal trials.”
That reluctance has led to acquittals in some serious criminal cases across the region, Mr. Bulgin said.
Royal Cayman Islands Police Service Deputy Commissioner Steve Brougham told conference attendees that difficulties with witness testimony had been overcome during two recent murder trials by new legislation brought to the Legislative Assembly by Mr. Bulgin and Director of Public Prosecutions Cheryll Richards.
“In February of this year, a particularly vicious murderer was convicted on the basis of witness anonymity,” Mr. Brougham said. “Only on Tuesday of this week, adverse inference was used for the first time [to obtain a murder conviction].”
In 2010, local lawmakers passed the Criminal Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Law. It allows a judge or a magistrate to grant an order to ensure that a witness will be heard anonymously during the course of a trial. The law also provides the order may be varied of lifted as required upon review by the trial judge.
Under the latest version of the Cayman Islands Police Law, juries are allowed to draw adverse inferences from a defendant’s silence at a trial in certain situations.
Mr. Brougham said, in general circumstances, the ability to secure evidence from witnesses in serious criminal cases was difficult and often expensive.
“We pay huge sums of money for witness protection,” he told the audience. “Inevitably, it means moving someone to another jurisdiction.”
In the area of forensic science, Mr. Brougham said the Caribbean has room for improvement. Often, he said it comes down to a matter of resources.
“The majority of people don’t realise the challenges that forensic science has for us,” he said. “We are not blessed with a great variety of forensic expertise. Simply having the capability to have a pathologist or a scientist attend the scenes of crime is a luxury we don’t have.”
Cayman Islands Governor Duncan Taylor, who also attended the conference, highlighted this issue: “It simply isn’t realistic to expect each of us to have a fully functioning forensic crime lab.”
In some instances, evidence from “relatively simple” criminal investigations must be shipped to three or four different labs for review.
In others, DNA samples or gunshot residual evidence has been dismissed because of cross contamination, Mr. Brougham said. With regard to witness testimony in court, Mr. Brougham said the local criminal justice system also has work to do regarding witness preparation and support.
“The majority of people are not used to standing in evidence with all of those hard questions,” he said.
The “worrying trend” regarding failures of witness testimony can be arrested by more reliable forensic sciences, Mr. Bulgin said. However, that must come with a caution.
“[Cayman Islands Human Rights Commission Chairman] Richard Coles would want me to implore you [to] be more vigilant in protection of civil liberties,” he said.