Imagine journalists in jury boxes, of all places

Imagine journalists in jury boxes, of all places

Alicia Dunkley-Willis

Monday, January 18, 2021

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This is the third in a series by our reporters on how they managed to cover the news at the onset of the novel coronavirus in 2020.

THERE are not many things that can cause a courtroom to empty in a rush, and these would not ordinarily include a prisoner with flu-like symptoms.

But when those symptoms are thought to closely resemble that of a virus sweeping the globe, then a hasty adjournment is quite in order.

Already, a COVID-19 Court Advisory Committee had been established by Chief Justice Bryan Sykes to guide the operations of the court, given the onset of the disease and several protocols put in place with immediate effect to reduce the possibility of spreading the virus in courts. But what transpired in courtroom number one (the chief justice's courtroom) at the Supreme Court in downtown Kingston on Wednesday, March 18, 2020 was for me, the harbinger for the conduct of the courts going forward as far as the COVID-19 pandemic is concerned.

It was day eight after the first case of the dreaded virus had been discovered in the island and the trial of six alleged members of the Westmoreland-based King Valley gang, which had since that January been forced to adjourn twice due to the illness of two of the accused, was once again under way or so all gathered in the courtroom that morning thought. Chief Justice Bryan Sykes, at the start of the proceedings, had instructed the six accused to spread themselves out in the docks in deference to social distancing recommendations — part of the method prescribed to help contain and halt the spread of the novel coronavirus for which 15 cases had, up to that day, been confirmed in the island. He had also told attorneys to utilise the additional spacing in the courtroom rather than remaining in assigned benches.

The startling announcement by defence counsel, Abina Morris that one prisoner was experiencing symptoms interrupted attorney Everton Bird, counsel for accused Copeland Sankey, who was making his final address to Chief Justice Sykes.

Bird had prefaced his address by saying: “Finally, Milord, we are now in a position to proceed after several false starts where my presentation is concerned.” That expectation, however, was short-lived.

Bird was about 30 minutes into dissecting the evidence presented during the trial by the star prosecution witness, who told the court that gang members were involved in the deadly lottery scam, committed murders and rapes in the course of robberies, and were also murderers for hire, when Morris sought permission to speak.

“Milord, if I may, Mr Powell indicated that he is feeling very unwell, an intense headache and his throat is hurting,” the attorney told Chief Justice Sykes.

“His symptoms are what?” the presiding judge queried. When Morris repeated the symptoms, he probed further: “Any coughing?”

“He indicated that he started feeling unwell from yesterday and he was coughing then, but he's not coughing today. He indicates that his joints are hurting,” she said.

Morris also told the court that Powell had said he had not told prison officials about his symptoms.

“So he had joint pains today, a cough yesterday, but none today. Well, Mr Bird, I don't know that we need to wait for the coughing to begin,” Justice Sykes said impassively.

In reply, Bird quipped: “So you are saying there is a prima facie case?”

Justice Sykes said, “Yes, based on what has been said we will have to adjourn the case. We had hoped to conclude today but Mr Powell has indicated that he is not feeling well, and the only thing missing is the cough. He will have to go on the 14-day quarantine recommended.”

In the meantime, the chief justice said Powell's “condition” also needed to be brought to the attention of the prison authorities.

There, before my very eyes, what would become part of the new norm for all and sundry utilising the courts — be it prisoners, witnesses, courtroom staff, judges, police officers — sprang into play. A tetchy Powell had to be prodded for several moments by a police officer to don a face mask she had given him but which he was refusing to wear, undaunted by the deadly glares his co-accused shot at him.

Fast-forward a day or two later and operations within the island's justice system were significantly scaled down, with all sittings and hearings of parish courts suspended from March 23 to April 20, except for matters deemed by judges to be fit for hearing. Matters relating to domestic violence, maintenance collections and payments, breaches of the Quarantine Act, and matters involving children were being treated as emergency cases. Where civil matters were concerned, trials screeched to a standstill while all individuals on bail had their bail extended. For criminal courts, all sittings were suspended initially until April 20, and guilty pleas facilitated. Later came additional adjustments which saw jury trials being suspended as the cases within the island ballooned.

The unthinkable had happened and the anatomy of the courtroom had not escaped the sweeping changes. Prisoners in masks, the irony of it all; trials by judge alone; journalists in jury boxes, of all places, since social distancing meant more space was needed for seating persons. Trials with multiple defendants — such as the recently concluded Uchence Wilson gang matter which started out with some 24 accused – utilising more than one courtroom because of social distancing requirements. Technology became the lifeline. Computer technicians and the technologically savvy buzzed in and out of courtrooms, ensuring that there was connectivity and sorting out glitches to allow communication between the various spaces.

The sacred had become, in instances, not so sacred. Benches reserved for those who had attained the hallowed status of Queen's Counsel now accommodating those not yet so anointed.

Now, instead of marching into the sacred building and navigating the maze of halls to locate a room where a judgement was being handed down in any matter being followed by this media house, this reporter would instead queue in a Zoom room from the comfort of home, waiting to be quizzed by a “dispatcher “ about my business in the court that day before being admitted to the particular courtroom to which you were headed.

At an almost dizzying pace and in a matter of days my experience covering the courts changed significantly, the inherent drama and intrigue now magnified.

The somewhat prophetic utterances of former President of the Court of Appeal Justice Dennis Morrison were now very much a reality. Justice Morrison, during a special meeting with the media last November, said that when he broached the prospect of virtual courts, albeit tongue in cheek some time aback, that there were “lots of snickers in the room”. Those snickers are now perhaps murmurs of respect, as within a few weeks of those sentiments being expressed the courts across the island “switched over into a new dispensation”.

Perhaps the happenings of Tuesday, January 28, 2020 was the dress rehearsal for the epidemic of change across the court system brought on by the pandemic. I had just settled into my customary seat in courtroom number one of the Supreme Court in downtown Kingston, pen and notebook at the ready to capture what would emanate from the continuing trial of alleged members of Westmoreland-based King Valley gang, when there was a suspicious rumble which set the furniture in the courtroom trembling and prompting quizzical looks from all present. Not long after that shock, one staff member entered and handed the sitting judge, who once again happened to be the chief justice, a device with what appeared to carry a message of some import. In a matter of moments the matter was swiftly adjourned and the hallowed halls of justice emptied in minutes, on the heels of warnings of a possible tsunami following what is now known to have been a 7.7-magnitude earthquake which shook a number of Caribbean islands.

Staff members poured out of the courthouse amid chaos and uncertainty on the streets; cars careened out of the neighbouring parking lot in rapid succession, all intent on making a quick getaway.

With a year fast approaching since the virus reached Jamaica's shores, the question of “what more” remains to be seen.

As for me, balancing hearth and home, monitoring five- and six-year-old children during online schooling while working from home most days, though on edge and ever cognisant that a “breaking news” event could upend it all, makes for many more heart-stopping instants.

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