Tivoli Commission of Enquiry: The show goes on, but it’s a bit toxic

I’m not ashamed to admit my fascination with the proceedings of the West Kingston Commission of Enquiry.

We have the interplay between lawyers, some of which is tedious, and some of which verges on the ridiculous, as with the young ‘pupstart’, Michael Williams (Tivoli Committee) trying to one-up, seasoned attorney, Linton Gordon (JDF). This time, MW, got caught up with being baited as a “gallant and learned friend” and thought it would be evened out by constantly referring to LG in the same terms. After a few rounds of that, Commission Chair, Sir David Simmons, made it clear that it was juvenile and ‘we’ were getting tired of it. The poor young lawyer, filled with lots of enthusiasm but less experienced in the cut and thrust of the court room, was sent back to the ‘freshers’ room’ to clean shoes.

Sir David has been exercised a few times, already, about press coverage of the commission. This week, he was miffed, quickly, when the contents of a so-called in camera (meaning off-camera, or closed-door) session was quickly aired in the local mass media. The world got to know that three JDF officers had given statements that they had seen JCF personnel kill civilians ‘in cold blood’ and would be giving testimony to the commission soon. Sir David did not like that the closed session had been leaked, and wanted the ‘sieve’ holes to be closed, quickly.

The other interplay that fascinates me is the choice and timing of when ‘gallant and learned friends’ go for the Patois vernacular, rather than using standard English. It’s clear that many of the residents from Tivoli who have testified do not operate well in standard English. This shows up in simple ways as when certain terms that have more precise meanings are used in a different way–common in Jamaica, but a problem when one is trying to get a clear picture of what story is being told. A few examples:

  • ‘house’ to mean home (even when referring to an apartment), so ‘mi house top’ is not the roof, but the ceiling of an apartment;
  • ‘hands’ meaning everything from the shoulder down

Occasionally, an attorney will use a few words of Patois to make things clearer, but generally sticks with standard English. So, what got into Linton Gordon and made him do almost all of his cross-examination of Annette Marshall in Patois? It made them seem more like friends? It put her at ease? She certainly responded by giving a ‘show’ that had lots of vivid images of how she saw things in Tivoli: “A Prezi run t’ings.” “Mi know Dudus!” not like friends, but he helped with school fees, etc. She didn’t have to struggle with the big words lawyers like to through out, and when she talked about “Passa passa”, most in the courtroom, including Sir David, by his own admission, knew exactly what she meant. I haven’t quite figured out this strategy, but just note that it’s not consistently used. No conspiracy theory…yet.

Someone noted, and I tend to agree, that the treatment of witnesses this time round seems less abrasive than in previous sittings. I’m not sure if that reflects the content of these witnesses’ testimony, much of it to do with violent actions by the security forces that was not contradicted, but which lawyers needed to put into some more benign context. One instance related to why the JDF should have shot a motor bike (which the witness said was “not provoking” anyone), which then exploded and set fire to his car. The JDF lawyer proposed that this was not wanton, but an attempt to deal with a booby trap. The witness rejected that firmly, stating repeatedly that no other booby trappings were present, and that the bike was in the yard, off the road. Many of the witnesses also seemed better prepared to ‘deal with’ the lawyers, as when Romaine Walker at one stage said he was “no forensic pathologist”, when asked by Gordon if he knew that bullet fragments were found in one of the people he said was killed by mortar fire. I think “Boom!” is appropriate.

Romaine Walker, also gave a vivid account of ‘bombs’ falling near his home, and how he saw three people lying injured in the area where he claimed the bomb had fallen. He showed his torn pants, from that day, which he was wearing to testify. He later testified about the tail of a mortar shell that a friend had found, and later passed to the Office of the Public Defender. Questioned about why his friend hadn’t come forward with this evidence for about two years, he gave plausible reasons.

Romaine Walker, testifying how 'bombs' landed near his home
Romaine Walker, testifying how ‘bombs’ landed near his home
Some of the testimony has been harrowing, especially that of Jane McFarlane, who had left her home and came back to find it looking like “a slaughter-house” (recalling that her “mother used to do butchering”), with blood on floors, walls, and furniture. She was especially distressed because she’d reportedly been in conversation with her son by phone, and called 119 for help, only for the son to be killed after that. She said she lives with the constant dread that her call for help led to her son’s death. The pictures taken of the inside of the home, after she returned were really of a bloody stained interior, and it would hard to imagine living there after. Yet, she did, telling of how she needed to clean and wash out the home. But, what kind of people leave another person’s home that way? State or gangster, that’s inhuman!

Before that, we’d heard from Marjorie Hinds that “Something ketch mi; the bomb…It lift me up an fling me out in the road.” She woke up in Kingston Public Hospital several days later, with multiple injuries. When pictures of her injuries were shown the first time, she broke down. But, on a resumption, she made clear that she was ready to see the pictures. She claimed she could no longer work, even though a medical report stated she had no permanent injuries. Mr. Gordon tried to use that to rebut, but got well rebuffed by Ms. McFarlane.

We get some good insight into how some Tivoli residents see the running of Jamaica. Annette Marshall’s declaration that Jamaican people’s biggest problem is the politicians, both PNP and JLP, and that the politicians help support the dons, probably resonated with many. It was clear that compensation was expected, but also notable that “no amount of money can take away the pain and terror”.

By definition, much of the interplay is between attorneys and witnesses. However, some of that verges on no simple attempt to agree on facts, but attempts by lawyers to discredit witnesses. Many people expect empathy by lawyers, but that may often run counter to what needs to be established for the client. Take some of the exchanges between Ms. Valerie Neita-Robertson (JCF) and Ms. Jane McFarlane. Ms. McFarlane had left Tivoli early during the weeken on May 22, then returned to learn that several of her family had been killed and seen her house looking like a slaughterhouse. Reasonable people find it hard to understand that anyone could question the cations she took to try to ‘rescue’ some of her family. She was the one needing to decide what to do. But, that was part of Ms. Neita-Robertson’s approach. It may be effective in raising doubts about the credibility of her story, but it probably made the lawyer despised in many eyes.

We have the weekend to absorb this latest round of sessions. I need the time to detox, a little.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)