Persistent trial delays complicate bail issue
Members of the public are often outraged when judges free persons accused of serious offenses on bail. However, those persons are often unaware of the reasoning behind the judges’ decision to grant bail and misunderstand the courts’ duty to uphold the Constitution, according to lawyers.
Take for instance the recent grant of bail to Valentino Dorsette, accused of the August 2009 murder of Tagia Soles-Armony.
Prosecutors fast-tracked the case to the Supreme Court to ensure a speedy trial. However, Dorsette has yet to be arraigned in the Supreme Court.
His lawyer, Ian Cargill, said the judge approved bail because Dorsette’s constitutional right to trial within a reasonable time had been breached.
According to Cargill, the judge decided to approve his release because of the delay in bringing the case to trial.
In a letter to the online site, Bahamas Press, where readers ranted vitriol over the decision, the dead woman’s father, Gordon Soles, wrote, “This was something I expected as although the accused young man was charged, he has not received a trial within a reasonable time and it would be unjust that he should remain on remand.”
Soles also commended Senior Justice Jon Isaacs’ “steadfast commitment to the ‘rule of law’ and his courage to uphold the Constitution of The Bahamas.”
In the midst of the crime crisis, the government has proposed to amend the Bail Act to restrict the release of alleged violent offenders.
Defense lawyer Michael Hanna describes this as a “knee jerk” response to public hysteria over crime.
In 2008, the Court of Appeal determined that an attempt to remove judges’ jurisdiction to grant bail for murder was unconstitutional as the legislature could not interfere with their inherent discretion to grant bail.
Back in 1989, Thomas Evans, QC, who was then an acting Supreme Court justice, said when there is a high level of crime one has to be careful that hysteria does not influence a judge’s decision on whether to grant a person bail.
Hanna noted that the fact that Bahamians live in a “country bridled with crime has nothing to do” with whether a suspect should be given bail as delay in bringing cases to trial is directly related to the grant of bail.
Hanna recited an observation by then Supreme Court Chief Justice Dame Joan Sawyer in R v Carlton Ferguson, where she said, ”It is not disputed that the general practice of the court is to refuse bail in cases of murder and treason unless there are exceptional circumstances.
“In recent years, the most unusual grounds relied on in applications for bail where the charge is murder is the inordinate delay between arrest and trial of the accused person.”
Hanna described Sawyer’s words as “an insightful summary of a dire situation.”
Police researcher Chaswell Hanna’s book “ Reducing Murders in The Bahamas” says 32 percent of persons on bail for murder reoffended during the study period of 2005 to 2009.
According to the book, of the 349 murders recorded during the study period, 19 suspects were charged with two different murders while four suspects were charged with three different murders. The research revealed that 32 percent of the persons charged with murder over the five-year period re-offended after being granted bail or otherwise discharged by the courts. Seven persons murdered during the study period had also been charged with murder themselves.
In 1994, Supreme Court Justice A C Thorne acknowledged that “many crimes are committed by persons on bail awaiting trial.”
He said, “It should be borne in mind that apart from the individual rights guaranteed by the Constitution there is a societal interest in ensuring that accused persons who transgresss the law are brought to trial and dealt with according to law.
“But it is also in the public interest that cases be tried as speedily as possible. Not only would this have the positive effect of reducing the number of crimes committed but it would increase the respect of the public for the administration of justice.”
According to defense lawyer Hanna, the late chief Justice Sir Joaquim Gonsalves-Sabola attempted to quantify the acceptable period of delay between arrest and trial as 22 months.
Four Supreme Court justices are now tackling the court’s backlog. Justice Thorne made the following timeless observation in his 1994 ruling, “While an increase in the number of courts is desirable for reducing the backlog of cases it will not solve the problem if the standard of [prosecutorial] efficiency is not improved.”