Criminal court judges are selected for the bench not only for their knowledge of the law, but also for their judgment and wisdom.
In pursuit of their primary goal, to preserve the social order, it is right and necessary Cayman’s judges should have many tools at their disposal – including the option of not recording a conviction even when a defendant has pleaded or been found guilty of a crime.
It sometimes happens that youthful mistakes or mitigating circumstances lead otherwise upstanding people to violate the law. In those rare cases, justice may be served simply by calling them to court to account for their actions. In those cases, it is not only compassionate, it is also just, to offer the individual a chance at a “clean slate” – especially in a small community such as ours, where a criminal record can limit a person for the rest of his or her life.
But we were surprised to learn through a Compass investigation how many criminal cases in Cayman result in “no conviction recorded.”
Three cases in recent years caught our attention:
- Austin Harris, who admitted to assaulting a woman at a party in May 2015, even though he said he was “severely intoxicated” at the time and could not remember the incident.
- Kenneth Bryan, who was the political assistant to the premier when he was arrested in 2014 and was later found guilty of disorderly conduct and assaulting (verbally) police outside a nightclub.
- Jimel Martyn McLean who, along with Sabrina Robin Walton, pleaded guilty to a charge of importing a live animal without a license after an exotic “sugar glider” got loose on a Cayman Airways flight from Miami.
All three of these cases involved high-profile individuals or their immediate family – namely, people who had been or would be elected to public office: Mr. Harris as MLA for Prospect, Mr. Bryan as MLA for George Town Central. Mr. McLean is the son of East End MLA Arden McLean.
In issuing her sentence, the magistrate in Mr. Harris’s case admonished, “To whom much is given, much is expected. You are a public figure and you have suffered much already in the court of public opinion and, no doubt, after today that will continue.”
Similarly, Mr. Bryan’s attorney argued that his client already had paid an “extremely high price” for his actions, including the loss of his job.
Perhaps so, but we would argue that high-profile individuals ought to be held to the highest standards of public conduct, without exception. Additionally, no one, we would posit, would consider the charges involved in the above cases “trivial.”
When the recipients of such mercy are prominent individuals, there is an additional danger – the appearance of influence or immunity from consequence as a virtue of their position.
We are not suggesting that the judges in the above cases, or in any of the 245 offenses disposed of last year by way of “no conviction recorded,” were influenced by anything other than compassion and their understanding of the application of the law.
Judges, who are far more familiar with the intricacies of individual cases than editorial writers, must be given a wide degree of deference when commenting on their decisions.
However, we cannot be as certain that public sentiment or comment aligns with our view.
Along the marl road, the appearance of favoritism can leave as great an impression as fact. It can contribute to erosion of public trust in the judiciary, perhaps the public institution that relies most on unimpeachability and integrity.