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Judge mulls whether to admit statements of key witnesses in passport scam case

The outcome will significantly impact the trajectory of this high-profile passport scam case.

High Court Judge Justice Tunde Bakre has adjourned a passport scam case to next Tuesday to deliberate on the admissibility of evidence crucial to the case and to allow the prosecution to accommodate its next witness who is currently on sick leave. 

Key witnesses Lonzel Jones and Geraldo James have chosen not to testify, while another potential witness, Ezra Lampkin-Cruikshank, remains elusive to Vincentian police. In response, Shannon Jones-Gittens, the Acting Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), has sought to submit their unsworn statements as evidence.

The case is about an alleged conspiracy to forge Antigua and Barbuda passport bio pages by suspended Superintendent of Police Ray John and former passport office worker Shakeema Charles who are suspected of working with people in St. Vincent.

Jones is alleged to have printed the contents on the forged passport bio pages, and James, John’s nephew, was apprehended at Argyle International Airport in possession of the incriminating documents in April 2018.

Police officers Sergeant C. Quow and retired Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) C. Davis, who were both recalled to the stand on Monday morning, explained why Jones had been unwilling to testify on various occasions. 

Jones, who had been shot previously, told the officers he believes it was linked to the forgery case. Shortly after John and Charles were arrested, Jones, a government worker, was shot in both hands. He reportedly told officer Davis that during that time he received no support from Vincentian police whom he “does not trust”. He told the officer he is “fearful for his life” based on information he received, has “post-traumatic stress,” and cannot sleep and has had to take therapy and counseling since the incident.

Officer Quow admitted that their investigation into Jones’ shooting was “unsuccessful” as the Criminal Investigations Department in St. Vincent made no arrests following its investigation.

John’s nephew on the other hand reportedly told the officers that he needed to consult with his lawyer who had advised him against testifying. However, when the officers visited the lawyer, he claimed not to be retained by James or Lampkin-Cruikshank, who had previously named him as an attorney, and never gave such instruction.

The contested statements are vital pieces of evidence against the defendants, Hugh Marshall’s and Michael Archibald’s clients who are accused of forging the passport bio pages. Both men therefore objected to the statements being tendered.

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Arguments to have statements thrown out

The defense, led by attorneys Hugh Marshall and Michael Archibald, strongly objected to the admission of these statements, citing conflicts with the Evidence Special Provisions Act 2009 and constitutional rights regarding witness examination. Marshall argued that, according to Section 15(e) of the Constitution, witnesses must be present for cross-examination to ensure a fair trial.

“Section 15(e) of the Constitution states that every person who is charged with a criminal offence shall be afforded facilities to examine in person or by his legal representative the witnesses called by the prosecution before the court and to obtain the attendance and carry out the examination of witnesses to testify on his behalf before the court on the same conditions as those applying to witnesses called by the prosecution.”

He also highlighted that the defence never had an opportunity to examine those unsworn statements which the prosecution is attempting to use as “true statements of the facts”. “The only evidence against the accused, John, would be these statements,” he insisted while referencing several cases to support his argument. 

However, to advance his argument to challenge the constitutional conflict, Marshall would have to introduce a constitutional motion.

Additionally, Marshall contended that the prosecution failed to meet the criteria outlined in the Criminal Procedure Act, asserting that reasonable and practical means to secure the witnesses were not exhausted. These efforts would include subpoenaing the witnesses, applying for arrest warrants or conducting a deposition to format better case evaluation.

“There is no evidence that the prosecution at any time even sought to summon the witnesses,” he told the court.

Neither Jones who allegedly facilitated the printing nor James who was caught in possession of the bio pages have been charged in connection with the investigation. Therefore, Marshall concluded that it was “absurd” and “unsafe” for Jones, a co-conspirator who himself is not charged, to refuse to be present to give evidence.

In response, ag. DPP Shannon Jones-Gittens defended the prosecution’s efforts, emphasizing the jurisdiction limitations and urging the judge to assess the quality of the evidence presented stating“the court’s jurisdiction does not extend past the jurisdiction of Antigua and Barbuda”.

If the judge does decide to have the evidence tendered, she noted that it would still have to consider how to treat the evidence. i.e whether to throw it out as inadmissible or have it retained and form part of the trial.

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Since the next witness for the prosecution, a Barbadian police officer, will not be available until next Tuesday, the continuation of the trial has been set for then.

The judge’s decision, expected to be made before the officer’s testimony next Tuesday, Marshall is hoping, could potentially lead to a dismissal of the indictment against Ray John or a temporary suspension of proceedings.

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