My path diverted….by: Aria Lightfoot

biased justiceDuring the years of 1999-2001,I worked at the Prosecution department as a Civilian Prosecutor (most attorneys in the United States listen in noticeable disbelief when I tell them what I did). At that time, the department of Public Prosecution was under the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) but closely merged with the Police Department. I was one of five civilian prosecutors hired to create a separation, so that the police who arrested were not prosecuting their own matters. We were public servants that reported to the office of the DPP but worked in the same office with the police department. For those who don’t understand yet- In Belize, the police officers arrest and prosecute their own cases at the magistrate (lower court) level. Most of the magistrates and the police back then did not have formal legal training.

I grew up in Belmopan during the years of 1974 thru 1993. Belmopan for the most part was a public servants’ community co-existing with a Central American immigrant community. Both my parents were high-level public servants in Police and Immigration. They were very private and highly professional individuals. My mom and dad, like most public servants in their era, did not openly discuss politics. It was one of those constitutional rules about being a public servant that they followed and took seriously. I was privy however to their times of frustration when they shared their experiences with each other and their limitations as public servants. I have heard them express frustration with some of their political leaders who blatantly disregard the law. At the time it was an abstract concept for me.

Both my parents are now passed on but left a deep sense of love for Belize, a belief in justice and professionalism. I am digressing a bit, but I feel that I must say this. My mother is described by many of her colleagues as a sweet person who was very professional. Many see me as a polar opposite to her personality with a striking resemblance to her. What people don’t realize is that my mother created this fight in me.   She said things that resonated with me in my years at the prosecution department. “Never allow anyone to destroy your reputation by engaging in anything fraudulent.” The first time you compromise yourself, you will forever have to compromise yourself for the next person and the next”. In the public service, be sure to always CYA, if anyone ask to do something that you know is wrong, ask them to put it in writing and look at them go away.”

In 1999, I left the private sector and decided to enter the public service. I was very excited about my new position. It was a very powerful position to be in when I think back. Not powerful because of money or status, but powerful because people’s lives were essentially in my hands. The job was one that gave me quite a bit of discretion and access to the people’s tumultuous lives. Thinking back, it should never have been a position I was ever in. On average I was prosecuting close to five cases per day. In comparison that was the amount of cases a trained crown counsel was prosecuting in the Supreme Court per session.   The Supreme Court criminal offenses were more egregious in result but the bases for establishing evidence and prosecuting are fundamentally the same.

At the time I was a junior college graduate with two years of paralegal training and about six weeks of law enforcement training and maybe another few weeks of training with customs and immigration. Most of the training was on the job, which translates into – quite a few people never saw justice because I was picking it up as I went along. The Chief Magistrate at the time and a few attorneys would sit with us after a case and explain what needed to be done to establish evidence and tips to improve case presentation.

Quite a number of the case files from the police were poorly constructed and missing major elements to establish evidence, sometimes, even a crime.   As prosecutors we had to research laws and interview witnesses to establish the foundation for the criminal charge. When the cases completely lacked evidence, we would take it to the DPP office for further review and withdrawal.

Many times the same defendants would lean on us because they could not afford competent legal advice and we were as close as they could get. I recall one young man. I don’t recall his name. He was regular at the court. He was arrested for possession of weed and he was the only one that police caught when the crowd dispersed running in different directions. He promised to bring witnesses that would prove he did not have any weed, but not one witness showed up for his defense. His elderly mother did show up however, taking time off from work and taking her hard earned money to pay his fines. His mother expressed frustration to me- her only son was always in trouble and even though she never said this, was a financial strain on the family. A co-prosecutor and myself sat and talked to the young man who started off with “the police deh chancey”. I explained to him that his environment and the places he chose to hang out were hot spots for police raids, so why was he there? I exposed him to the reality that not one “friend” showed up in his time of need, except the mother he kept disrespecting. He sat and listened quietly…during the rest of my time there, I never saw him again and hope it resonated with him.

I became quite proficient at my job. I reviewed my case files, took work home, drove to the crime scenes to get a visual perspective of the area. I read up on cases and looked to the commonwealth countries for rulings and scenarios similar to the cases I was dealing with. I successfully prosecuted defendants even ones who had hired attorneys. It was an idealistic time in my life because I felt I was contributing positively, interacting with people and influencing change…and then my idealism bubble popped.

In 2000(circa), I was handed a case file that involved a number of young men (kids really) who got into a fight where two were stabbed. I believe it was a graduation party night. The young men in this case were a number of kids from the “elite” well-connected population of Belize. One of kids was a prominent politician’s son who was identified as being part of the fighting group. The story made headlines in Belize and lucky me, the case file landed on my desk. I objected. I believed that trained attorneys should handle high profile cases; however it seemed that no one wanted it. I read through the case file and realized that the only arrested person in the entire brawl was an underprivileged kid whose name was never called anywhere in any of the witness report except to say that he was physically part of the group. Back then, it was a well-known secret that many privileged kids rode around fearless because they had daddy’s money, status and some “bad” kid from the hood they paid for protection.

After reading this case file, I realized that there was absolutely no evidence to convict the kid who was arrested. It was a brawl, and the victim that got stabbed was suffering from amnesia. (I was informed the families had already worked it out) It boggled my mind that they even arrested the defendant. In my naiveté, I went to the Office of the DPP to ask him to withdraw the matter because there was no evidence to convict. He gave me some babble about the high level nature of the case, and let the magistrate dismiss it. It made no sense to me- why allow this young man to go through the justice system if it was clear as day that we were wasting time, not to mention, it was unethical and unconstitutional. Frustrated I went to the police head of prosecution and again raised the issue that there was no evidence to convict and he told me that due to the media attention on the case, they did not want to seem that they were involved in a cover up, so just take it to the magistrate to dismiss.   I was flabbergasted. Was I going to be part of this charade?

I was further instructed that I was not suppose to summon the golden child to court as one of the witnesses. In my mind, I was thinking- you are going to take an innocent man to court for a political cover up, but we are not going to examine the testimony of all who were involved? Not under my watch. I told the orderly to summon every witness in the file. The orderly reported that when the golden child was summoned, he rudely told the police “do you know who I am” and the police told him “yes, and if you don’t show up, I will arrest you for contempt”. My head began to pound as I sat back anticipating …

Once everyone was summoned, I started to get calls from witnesses claiming they would be out of the country, or they would be unavailable for the court date. I explained to them the repercussions of ignoring a court summons. On the morning of the said hearing date, our office cleaner that normally showed up at work at 8:00 am to use our phones until 3:00 pm -when her work actually started -tied up our phone line with her normal morning misuse of the government phone. I got a call in my supervisor’s office telling me that the Attorney General was trying to reach me on the phone, but the phones were tied up. I then received a personal visit from the clerk of court telling me that the Solicitor General was trying to reach me. In mock disbelief, I asked- why?

I was then called to a meeting where the Attorney General, Chief Magistrate, the Magistrate hearing the matter, and myself were present. They asked me what was the problem with the case. I told them, as I told the DPP, that there was no evidence linking the accused to the stabbing. They questioned the ethics of the police arresting this young man and at that very moment I realized that these men thought I was a complete idiot. I also realized that the justice system, was contaminated and justice was not blind and not protected. At the end of the meeting, it was concluded that no witness was going to show up. The police was to call every witness name three times, saved for the golden child, and the magistrate would dismiss the case.

I told the police to call the entire witness list, including the golden child. The police I believe delighted in my rebellious nature. He called every witness name three times, no one answered and the matter was dismissed That defendant probably don’t even know how his fate was decided before any evidence was ever presented. That was delivering justice. I am sure there are hundreds of public servants who are witnesses to similar abuse in the system.

On the same date, instead of heading directly back to my office, I went to the Canadian consulate looking for college applications and also applied to the University of South Florida the same night. It was the first time I got a sense of how corrupted the system was. I also predicted that as they misapplied justice and abused it, the system would become progressively worse.

I got accepted to York University in Toronto and the University of South Florida. The US was far more accommodating than the Canadian Consulate. I started school in 2001 to pursue a BA in Political Science …