Premier Alden McLaughlin and broadcaster Hurley’s Media were publicly admonished Thursday over a radio interview that threatened to derail the trial of Hassan Syed before it reached the jury.
Lawyers for Mr. McLaughlin apologized during a brief court appearance for what the premier accepts were “ill-judged and incautious” remarks made on the Rooster FM morning talk show midway through the trial.
The Feb. 17 radio interview, during which the premier referred to Syed as a “scamp” and questioned the evidence of a police officer who had testified in the case, led to a near three-day delay in the trial and an application from the defense to have the jury dismissed.
Neil Timms, QC, who appeared for Mr. McLaughlin, said his client had reacted to protect his reputation following news broadcasts about a police officer’s testimony that Mr. McLaughlin had declined to give a statement in the Syed case.
He said the premier had never intended to influence or impact the trial but had been compelled to act, with an election looming, to protect his reputation against implications that he may have done something wrong or have something to hide. Mr. McLaughlin disputed the police officer’s account and went on to make remarks about Syed during the interview.
“It was an error of judgment in the heat of a virulent election campaign,” said Mr. Timms.
Syed’s attorney Tom Price, QC, argued in a Feb. 20 hearing, the details of which were subject to a media reporting gag until the conclusion of the trial, that the premier’s comments could have influenced the jury against Syed.
He said the comments had come from a “man of extraordinary influence” at a “critical time in the proceedings” and were so damaging to Syed’s right to a fair trial that the entire jury should be dismissed.
Justice Philip St. John-Stevens lifted the gag order at the end of the trial Thursday and summoned legal counsel for Premier McLaughlin, Hurley’s Media and Rooster host Woody DaCosta, who conducted the interview to explain their actions.
The judge told them their remarks on the show were “perhaps not the most appropriate in the circumstances.”
He added that it was the responsibility of media organizations to have safeguards in place to prevent such comments being broadcast during an active trial.
“The effect of that broadcast was to delay the trial for two-and-a-half days,” he said. “The court was faced with an application to discharge the jury. It involved an extensive and expensive inquiry. After careful consideration, the trial proceeded. The court was satisfied no unfairness had been generated.”
Lloyd Samson, representing Mr. DaCosta, who was in court in person, said his client understood the “potentially catastrophic” impact the interview could have had on the trial and made an “unreserved apology to the court.”
“He accepts what he did was wrong,” said Mr. Samson.
Rachel Smyth, for Hurley’s Media, said the broadcaster and its owner Randy Merren, who also attended court, apologized to the court and the public for the incident and had put in place procedures to ensure there was no repeat.
Justice St. John-Stevens said any remarks during a trial that alluded to the veracity of witnesses or the innocence or guilt of the defendant could amount to contempt of court, punishable by up to six months in prison.
He said it was the effect of the actions, not the motivation that was important, and such remarks could lead to trials being aborted.
No formal contempt charges were brought, and there will be no further action in connection with the interview.
The premier, who was in the Legislative Assembly and did not appear in court, told the Cayman Compass later on Thursday that he had no further comment on the matter.
“Mr. Syed has been convicted and the time for any appeal has not expired. I do not at this time propose to add to the statement given in court,” Premier McLaughlin said.
The details of the interview and the repercussions it caused for the trial were kept from the jury, who were told only that proceedings were being delayed to deal with legal matters.
During his application for the jury to be dismissed, Syed’s attorney Mr. Price read out a transcript of Mr. McLaughlin’s comments on Feb. 17. The premier was being interviewed by Mr. DaCosta during the radio show.
Mr. McLaughlin appeared to dispute evidence given in the trial on Feb. 16 by Royal Cayman Islands Police Service Inspector Rudolph Gordon. In court, Mr. Gordon was asked whether he had received a response to written questions submitted during the Syed investigation from both Mr. McLaughlin, then the education minister, and former UCCI board chairman Danny Scott.
Inspector Gordon said he had not received written answers to those questions from the two men.
Mr. McLaughlin told Rooster FM that he did talk to the police. “In fact, they came to my house. Three of them came. I met them in my home office. I don’t know if they’ve forgotten all of that.”
The premier also said he told the officers that he knew nothing about the Syed matter and that there was nothing he could help them with.
“At the very least, we say, this could have the effect of undermining the evidence of Mr. Syed,” Mr. Price said.
Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Patrick Moran disputed this assertion. Mr. Moran said the questions asked of Inspector Gordon dealt only with the witness statement he sent in writing to the premier. At no point did the officer claim he had not spoken to the premier.
“There’s no issue that [the premier] refused to make a witness statement, despite repeated requests by police,” Mr. Moran said. “How much relevance does that bear to the issues the jury has to decide? In my respectful view, little if any.”
Another comment made by Mr. McLaughlin during the “Cayman Crosstalk” appearance was in relation to Syed himself.
According to the show transcript, the premier’s comment was: “I certainly don’t want the prejudiced result, because I firmly believe Syed is a scamp.”
“We submit [these comments] are so powerful, from such an important person, at such a critical time in the proceeding … no decision [of the court] can cure them,” Mr. Price said.
Again Mr. Moran disagreed: “The ‘scamp’ had the full support of this minister throughout the whole time with which we’re concerned. If this jury will already have taken the view that this defendant had admitted scampish behavior … what difference does it make?”
Ultimately, the trial judge decided that all seven jurors could continue deciding the case after speaking to them, in general terms, about whether they had heard, or were aware of, the Feb. 17 radio show appearance. Jurors told the court they had not heard it at all.