Wednesday 19 February, 2020

Court of Appeal rules in favour of convicted murderer

The Court of Appeal freed a convicted murderer, Roderick Ricardo Went and ordered that he not be retried and placed the responsibility for the debacle squarely at the feet of his attorney at the time.

According to the court, the failure of Queen Counsel’s Keith Simmons to challenge the evidence of two policemen essentially resulted in Went not benefiting from a fair trial.

The court further ruled that since 15 years had passed since the crime and there was a strong likelihood that more time would elapse before another trial, the appellant should not be retried.

Went’s attorney failed to challenge the “very evidence that pointed to… [his] guilt”; that evidence related to alleged oral statements Went made, admitting that he killed Floretta Hyland.

This appeal court’s decision resulted in the release of Went after eight years in prison.

In the appeal case, Counsel Dennis Headley appeared on behalf of the appellant, Went while Oliver Thomas represented The Crown.

Chief Justice Sir Marston Gibson and Justices of Appeal: The Honourable Andrew Burgess and The Honourable Kaye Goodridge handed down the decision on Thursday.

CASE FACTS AND BACKGROUND

The circumstances surrounding the case started April 7, 2003.

On that date a foul odour led police to No. 25 Mayport Lane, Pine St Michael, - the residence of Hyland.

It was there that Hyland’s decomposing body was discovered; a wound to her body was proof of foul play.

The case went cold for seven years as police failed to find the killer. In 2010, however, police approached Went to question him about the murder. As police indicated, Went was at the polyclinic at the time, suffering from influenza and handed over medication to them.

Police alleged that Went told them “I killed Flo officer I did want money and we scuffled and I killed her”. Went, police said, then signed a written statement recorded by two officers.

It was those statements that the prosecution rested their case on.

During the trial, lawyer Keith Simmons QC, did not cross-examine the police on those alleged statements but instead focused on the absence of DNA and fingerprinting evidence. He called the lack of such testing “mind boggling”.

Went was found guilty by a jury on March 31, 2014.

Headley appealed the conviction and sentence in 2014. One of the grounds of appeal was that “as a consequence of Defence attorney’s conduct of the trial, the defendant did not receive a fair trial”. 

In Went’s affidavit, he outlined his dissatisfaction at Simmons’ failure to challenge the oral statements. Went also said he denied making such statements and suffered unfair treatment by police which caused him to sign a written statement out of fear. He also said he could not read or write.

Simmons, in response, admitted that he should have cross examined the officers on the statements.

Although Headley acknowledged the rarity of a court overturning a jury’s verdict based on criticism of a defence counsel’s conduct, he pursued with ground of appeal.

He said Went did not enjoy due process and that it was “imperative” that Simmons cross examined the officers on the confession statements since they “formed the crux of the prosecution’s case”.

COURT’S DECISION

The court looked at whether the defence counsel’s conduct of the trial resulted in Went not being afforded a fair trial within the meaning of Section 18 (1) of the Constitution.

It was agreed that challenging the statements would have been necessary to the “defense strategy”. The judgment also said that failure to challenge “amounted to no effective defence being advanced by the appellant to the charge of murder and had serious implications for the case of the appellant”.

Given the defence counsel’s conduct, the court determined that Went was denied due process which resulted in him not receiving a fair trial.

The conviction was quashed and in determining whether there would be a new trial the court considered a number of factors. One such factor included the length of time between the offence and a new trial.

The court looked at the fact that 15 years had elapsed between the date of the offence and the disposal of the appeal. It was acknowledged that even more time will pass before a new trial.

The evidence of the defence’s case and the strength of the prosecution’s evidence was also considered and determined that it was not in the interest of justice to order a new trial.

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