Privy Council upholds Cayman unlicensed firearm conviction

The Privy Council has overturned a decision of the Cayman Islands Court of Appeal, upholding the conviction of Robert Aaron Crawford, 22, for possessing an unlicensed firearm.

Crawford had received a sentence of 10 years for the offense. The charge arose from an incident in November 2011, when Crawford was chased by a police officer and was seen throwing something into nearby bush. Police later recovered a gun at the scene.

Crawford chose to be tried by judge alone, and Justice Charles Quin found him guilty in 2012.

In 2013, the Court of Appeal overturned the conviction and acquitted Crawford, not ordering a new trial. The Crown appealed that decision to the Privy Council and the matter was heard last month. The judgment of the five-member board was released on Wednesday.

The judgment pointed out that Justice Quin’s finding of guilt was based substantially on his assessment of the evidence of the officer who had chased Crawford. He had found the officer’s evidence to be accurate and reliable.

The chase on foot took place after 3 a.m. on Nov. 18, 2011 near the Island Heritage roundabout on the Esterley Tibbetts Highway after Crawford crashed into nearby guardrails. Two Uniform Support Group officers had been pursuing the vehicle as the result of a report that Crawford had pulled a gun on someone. There was a passenger in the car driven by Crawford; when the car crashed, both occupants got out and ran. Each officer picked a man to pursue.

The officer who chased Crawford said he saw him throw a silver-colored gun. He was able to tackle Crawford a short time later. After a search of the area, with commercial lighting and a metal detector, a loaded silver stock German Luger pistol was found.

The Privy Council noted that no one ever suggested that the officer did not see Crawford throw something and that “At no stage during the trial was it suggested on behalf of [Crawford] that the gun had been brought to the scene by police and planted.”

The Court of Appeal had held that Justice Quin erred in his treatment and analysis of evidence regarding the significance of the absence of Crawford’s DNA on the gun, and discrepancies in photographs taken by two officers.

The Privy Council disagreed, saying it was the Court of Appeal that erred, rather than the judge.

Justice Quin had directed himself that a person who handles a gun may not always leave recoverable fingerprints or DNA on it. The presence or absence of DNA or fingerprints does not determine guilt or innocence of any defendant.

As to the photographs of the gun at the scene, there had been issues about a round of ammunition seen in one set of photos but not the other, and whether the gun was on top of the foliage or beneath it. The Court of Appeal adverted to the possibility that officers might have “improved” the evidence by moving the gun.

The Privy Council said Justice Quin addressed this point, asking whether it undermined the officer’s evidence of seeing the gun thrown and then the gun being found. There was no soil or vegetation attaching to the gun to suggest it had been in the bush for some time. The gun was old and had an ill-fitting magazine, but was in full working order.

Justice Quin had directed himself that what mattered was the evidence of the officer who chased Crawford. If it was truthful and reliable, Crawford was guilty; if there was any doubt about the officer seeing a gun, Crawford had to be acquitted. The Privy Council said Justice Quin was right to direct himself that the case depended on the officer’s evidence.

“Unless there is some error of principle, or material to show he was plainly wrong, this is exactly the kind of assessment which ought not to be disturbed by an appellate court without clear reason,” the Privy Council said.

After being caught, Crawford had told the officer, “That guy had a gun.” The Privy Council said this suggested that the gun was in the forefront of Crawford’s mind at the time and he was attempting to put the blame on someone else, apparently his passenger. This also supported the officer’s evidence.

“Neither in respect of the photographic evidence nor in respect of the DNA evidence were the criticisms of the Court of Appeal justified,” the Privy Council determined, and there was no basis for departing from Justice Quin’s verdict.