Earl Witter was Jamaica’s Public Defender during the government’s attempts to arrest and extradite Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke in May 2010. He left that office in April 2014.
He’s nothing if not a consummate legal practicioner: he knows the legal system well from deep in the trenches. He used all its wiles and cited his extensive experience and referred to his voluminous law library in almost taking over the Commission of Enquiry (COE). He was determined to not play by the Commission’s rules and used his legal weight to push around the counsels and the Commissioners. How else could one explain how he repeatedly refused to answer questions, as directed (“Just yes or no”, he was told often, but chose to give long and elaborate replies, to set them “in context”) without much sanction, or to ask questions when others had been told firmly before that this was not the role of witnesses? As I saw it, he gamed the system, putting lawyers on the back foot and forcing them to bowl better line and length, to use the kind of metaphor the Commission chair likes. Some times, he just padded balls but then swung wildly for the fences, for instance, asking Peter Champagnie to list the “more ways than one” in which he had been tardy in the discharge of his function as PD.
Perhaps, it was just good old deference. But, even so, it flags again how the COE is tilted against ‘ordinary’ citizens.
Mr. Witter is also nothing if painfully slow in most of what he does, and that included how he gives answers and has little idea of how to be brief. He would rarely answer without refreshing his memory by reading from his report. Ironic that lawyers who handle briefs all the time have so little notion of the great gift of brevity. But, again, it’s easy to see as a ploy. He would often intersperse his replies with long silences, as he reflected on the answer he would give. Or, he would insist on answering a question over which he’d pondered awhile, but by then counsel had decided to move on to other matters, and the answer came anyway. All of this dragged out his time at the COE. Necessarily so? Not, in my view.Mr. Witter has also been at pains
during his time on the stand
to give his overarching view of how to improve Jamaican society, with his ‘One Love’ proposals for the nation. Kumbaya?
Oddly, that ‘oneloveism’ disappeared often and quickly as he jousted with fellow lawyers. He bridled at how the press had misrepresented him and took offense when Linton Gordon JDF responded in support of them, asking if Mr. Gordon held a brief for The Gleaner. Shrewdly, the next day Mr. Gordon alleged he’d been called by several people to check on that and how he’d been embarrassed. Mr Witter only took a bit of the bait, saying that he thought he’d said “the media”. Mr. Gordon defused things a little by hoping the charge was in jest, but stating “I hold no brief for the media!”
On the matter of what we each hear and see, Mr. Witter played the ultimate shots by arguing that he’d not be surprised that someone who toured West Kingston with him might have heard gunfire when he didn’t or not see dead bodies he’d seen. He saw with his “own eyes” and heard with his “own ears”. OKAY?🤓
Witter had good cause to chastise the media, though, as some sloppy Jamaica Observer reporting this week claimed he’d said 44 people died in Tivoli as a result of extrajudicial killings when Mr Witter was clear that those deaths were alleged to have been so caused http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/44-met-demise-through-extra-judicial-killings—Witter_19240533 He sought to correct that the next morning. I’ve not seen a correction yet by the Observer.
Amidst the sparring, we got some insights into the internal governance tensions currently and then playing out in Jamaica. Inter-agency cooperation and collaboration may be little more then lip service at key times. Processes may often get displaced by expediency. Official inaction is costly. At the end of the day, ordinary citizens get the short end of the stick as they can rarely make these things change.
Dr. Michael Abrahams wrote during the week about why we care little about Tivoli: ‘Many Jamaicans, however, could not care less about the civilians in Tivoli Gardens. One woman I know, who hails from rural Jamaica, told me that “the whole a dem fi dead”. A lady from uptown Kingston, who identifies as a Christian, told me that she has absolutely no problem with what transpired there. Another Kingstonian, a man, informed me, rather nonchalantly, that “the Bible says that there has to be a blood sacrifice”.
There is so much violence in our society that we have become desensitized to stories of murder and mayhem, and unfortunately, for many of us, the lives of some people are worth more than the lives of others, with those of lower socio-economic status being placed at the bottom of the totem pole’
In all his varied views on what happened in May 2010, Mr Witter bore this out. The problem is he also had a chance to do more to redress that, but got caught up in the bureaucratic games, then and now.