DNO: Twelve of 15 serving and former ministers of government appeared before the Roseau Magistrate Court today where they all pleaded not guilty to the charge of treating.
Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit and cabinet ministers Reginald Austrie, Rayburn Blackmoore, Catherine Daniel, Ian Douglas, Kenneth Darroux and Roselyn Paul, as well as former parliamentarians, Cassius Darroux, Johnson Drigo, Colin McIntyre, Ian Pinard and Petter St. Jean, had the charges formally read to them.
Absent from court were former MP Ivor Stephenson due to illness and Kelver Darroux and Justina Charles who are out of state.
According to the indictment, leading up to the December 8, 2014, general election, the government ministers did work together to corruptly influence the results of the election by engaging in the unlawful act of treating by hosting two free concerts at the Windsor Park Sport Stadium.
The first event was held on November 28, 2014, and featured three time Grammy award winner and international gospel star, Donnie McClurkin whilst the second event was held on December 6, 2014, featuring Morgan Heritage, which is said to have corruptly influence the Dominican electorates to vote for the candidates of the Dominica Labour Party (DLP) in the said election, contrary to Dominica’s House of Assembly Election Act.
Following the election, where the DLP emerged victorious, Edingcot St. Valle, Antoine Defoe (deceased) and Mervin John Baptiste had filed private criminal complaints against 15 DLP candidates.
The seven year legal battle went through the High court, court of appeal and most recently, the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) which dismissed the appeal in the matter of Roosevelt Skerrit & Ors [others] v Antoine Defoe & Ors and affirmed the order of the Court of Appeal reinstating the Magistrate’s summonses for the appellants to appear to answer the election charge of treating.
At the court hearing today, Barbadian Queen’s Counsel (QC), Andrew Pilgrim appeared as lead counsel for the defense assisted by Heather Felix Evans, Lennox Lawrence and Jodi Luke. The Acting Director of Public Prosecution, Sherma Dalyrample also made an application pursuant to section 72 of Dominica’s constitution, to have a watching brief in the matter.
For the claimants, Julien Prevost, Ronald Charles and Cara Shillingford appeared as amicus curiae (friend to the court), holding papers for the claimants attorney Dominican Born, QC Justin Simon.
In a turn of events, one of the complainants, Mervin Jno. Baptiste, withdrew his complaint making it clear that he was not paid or threatened but members of his family were threatened.
“Nobody personally threatened me but based on what my family went through, I came to this decision,” he told the court.
Presiding Magistrate, Bernard Pacquette, then withdrew the complaint.
The defense also made an application for the third complaint in the name of Antoine Defoe to be struck out as the complaint is now deceased. This application was granted by the Magistrate for want of prosecution.
Attorney Prevost then informed the court that he was in possession of a letter from QC Simon stating that he was unable to be present for the matter and as such requested an adjournment.
QC Pilgrim quickly objected to this request and asked that the matter be struck out.
“My clients had to make arrangements to be here today, and whilst it is not about me and my three PCR tests and my suffering in isolation, they have had to go through considerable inconvenience. This case is seven years old and we have asked for disclosure but our request has been ignored. Based on the claimants request, this court’s time has no meaning,” the lawyer argued.
He then put forward four grounds for his objection which included, according to Pilgrim, the claimant’s refusal to give disclosure despite the defense’s “countless” requests. He also posited that since the claimant requested a date for the matter to be heard in the magistrate court, “his excuse that his attorney is not present ought not to be supported.”
The Queen’s Counsel further stated that the fact that the defendants, at their own expense, made arrangements to answer the charge on the date set by the court wherein abandoning all work and family commitment and the letter from QC Simon does not address the court and gives no reason for his unpreparedness for the trial and failure to be at court, are grounds for dismissal.
However, Attorney Charles said he was astonished by his learned friend request and debunked the application.
According to him, as per the norms of the court, the summon date is set for case management based on the defendants plea. Following this, he noted that the court set a date for disclosure and trial.
“If this application was made after a date set for trial and disclosure and the complaints did not comply with the court’s request I would be in full support of this application. But the court has to set a date for disclosure so the defense request for disclosure prior to the matter reaching the court is irrelevant.”
The complainant, St. Valle, then told the Magistrate that if the court is minded to dismiss the matter, he will call his first witness.
However, in handing down his judgement, Magistrate Pacquette labeled the application for dismissal as “premature” as it is the first time that the matter is before the court.
He said, in making his decision, he was guided by section 76 of the Magistrate code of procedure which states that if a defendant pleads not guilty the Magistrate should hear evidence from both counsel and the defendant must be given knowledge of the evidence against him through the means of disclosure.
“The normal practice of this court is to take the plea of the defendants and set a date for trial and disclosure. The court is bound by this precedent,” he said.
Given the position of some of the defendants, he stated that they may be excused for future appearances until they are summoned as the matter can be ex-parte.
Disclosure is ordered for June 8, 2021 whilst the trial is set to commence on July 8, 2021.