Prime Minister Dean Barrow announced this week that among his new get-tough plans to push back the rising tide of murderous activity, he will pass into law preventative detention, that will be geared to take habitual criminals off the streets.
He will also move for certain capital offence cases to be tried by a panel of judges instead of a panel of 12 jurors.
The death penalty, Prime Minister Barrow noted is still on our law books, but it will be necessary to amend the Constitution to allow for certain capital cases to be tried by judges and for preventative detention.
Prime Minister Barrow along with Minister of Police and Public Safety Doug Singh, and Minister of Defense Carlos Perdomo briefed the media on the weekend’s surge of shootings at a press conference at the Racoon Street Police Station Conference Room on Monday.
The press conference was broadcast to the nation, and the Prime Minister began by extending his condolences to the families of the victims, before he announced his intention to seek Cabinet approval for sweeping crime-fighting initiatives to address a situation which he admitted had reached “crisis proportions.”
Belizeans rejected the idea of preventative detention in a country-wide consultation, when Barrow’s new administration first floated the idea two years ago as a crime- fighting tool. The Prime Minister had quietly withdrawn the proposal after it encountered stiff resistance.
But a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, and there have been renewed and persistent calls to bring back capital punishment.
“We have amended various pieces of legislation in an effort to strengthen the legal arsenal of the Police,” Prime Minister Barrow said.
“We’ve introduced new limitations on bail, we have said that in the case of certain people who are known offenders, the courts now have the power when there is no choice but ultimately to grant bail, to restrict their freedom of movement; to say they can’t leave their places of abode within certain hours; to say they cannot be found in particular areas of the city.
“I am yet to hear, since we passed that legislation of any instance in which the courts have in fact imposed any of the limitations.
“I am not blaming the courts. As we said this morning, it might be that our prosecutors are not making the requests ..... but we certainly have to ensure that we use all the tools that are available to us.
“Again we are going to change the law, and we have already introduced the legislation that will put a stop to that.
“As it is, when a person is originally charged with a firearm offence, he cannot get bail from the Magistrate’s Court. He has to wait and go to the Supreme Court (because) when you are charged you can’t get bail.
“But when you are convicted, you can get bail just like that! There’s something radically wrong there.
“Another thing, these people appeal their sentences in the Magistrate’s Court and that’s a get-out-of-jail free card. Not only are they given bail pending an appeal, the appeal never gets heard!
“We are going to introduce a law that requires magistrates....!
“I am sorry, I do not care who I offend. This is an extremely serious matter, and I am beyond the point where I have to worry about bruised feelings.
“We are going to pass a law that will give the Magistrates a time limit within which, that is the case now, they have to prepare their reasons for decision. It is just that now there’s the requirement, but it is violated with impunity and nothing happens.
“ Well, consequences are now going to attach to the failure of any Magistrate to prepare the reasons for decisions in a timely fashion so that the appeal can be dealt with and so these people don’t simply abuse the system and ... get away scot free.
“I will go to Cabinet tomorrow and I will ask to re-introduce the provisions to change the Constitution to bring into force preventive detention laws.
“Again I am very sorry. On the last occasion there was an outcry! We are at a point now where if all people of good sense among us don’t realize that the situation is so extreme as to demand a measure like that, then I am sorry!
“We will simply have to proceed in the face of whatever opposition there is. The Attorney General is being asked to meet with the upper judiciary.
“The death penalty is still on the books in this country. It is not like before where (if) you are convicted of murder you should, in the normal course, be sentenced to death. A lesser sentence can be passed ...(in) some cases of murder.
“I haven’t been a lawyer to practice criminal law for a while, but I know enough to know that there is murder and there is murder ... It is not in every case of murder that the court is even able to pass the sentence of death.But in those cases where in fact the court is entitled to pass the sentence of death, we want that sentence in fact imposed.
“It is true that we are not catching very many of them , but that is even more reason to ensure that when we do catch and convict somebody, the maximum penalty is in fact applied!
“I will not get into the arguments about deterrents and all that kind of stuff. I certainly am convinced that if you impose the maximum penalty, that will act as a deterrent. “It will certainly deter the one that you execute.”
PM Barrow also indicated that he intends to do away with trial by jury for murder cases. He did not elaborate on how he would do this. But it is generally conceded that if there is no trial by jury, there has to be trial by a competent trio of judges.
The Prime Minister also said that he will be looking at ways to preserve the confidentiality of persons who give eye witness statements, without compromising the evidence to be presented before the courts.
Police Minister Douglas Singh provided statistics of crime in Belize City, and promised the Police Department and the Belize Defence Force would beef up patrols on the streets “to take back control of Belize City from the criminal elements”.
“January and February showed an average of three murders per month in the city,” Singh said.
But in the month of March, “there was an extreme spike, with a total of 12 murders in March alone. We are now only a few days into April and we’ve had four murders just over the weekend.
The pattern showed that as of March 10, there has been an increase or a sustained pattern of murder, in particular gang violence and gang related murders in the city, an average of about three per weekend which has brought us up to that number of 12 for the entire month.”
“Before that time, we had joint operations with BDF and sustained operations by the Police Department.
“Since the spike, we have put additional resources on the ground. As a matter of fact, last weekend alone, which was a record weekend, we had cycling teams in operations of about 10 cyclists, which is an additional resource that we put on.
“We had a total of 25 police officers that were deployed from Belmopan in the streets of Belize; we had an additional 18 persons from various districts countrywide who formed part of the support base in Belize during that period.
“It is as a result of the increased presence on the streets that we were able to apprehend two individuals and got what we believe to be two guns that we believe were used in two of the murders over the weekend.
“In one case the gang unit was quick and they responded within 15 minutes and was able to detain the individual and found the firearm.
“In the case of the latter, the murder of the Chinese lady, there was also a speedy response that also realized a suspect who I believe has been identified in a line-up parade today and also the weapon that we believe to have been involved in that murder.
“This increased (police) presence is a part of our reaction (to) the escalating crime. It is not a result of a lack of action by the Police Department.
“We have to go back to the drawing board and analyze the reasons for what is going on. There was a co-ordinated meeting yesterday, and in that meeting a number of reactions have been planned. This is to help keep the citizens of Belize safer.
“Those include certainly additional policing and specifically we have had a commitment from the BDF to deploy an additional company, 30 additional officers to work in the sustained operation to boost the Police and BDF operations in the City and in specific crime ridden areas.
“The Belmopan Police staff will continue to be deployed to Belize City for the remainder of the week, and ongoing which will see a total of 20 additional personnel to conduct foot patrols.
“In other words, the exercise that we had last week will continue. It will be sustained because we have noted that the additional manpower on the street has led to some level of success in the apprehension of these individuals.”
Other Cabinet ministers present included Minister of Works, Anthony “Boots” Martinez, Minister of Education and Youth. Patrick Faber, Foreign Minister Wilfred Elrington and Attorney General, Bernard Pitts.
It would be unthinkable for a court of justice to try to operate without evidence.
Evidence is the key! Without it there can be no prosecution; no conviction; no justice!
Consider this: There were at least two witnesses who saw what happened when a teenage gunman entered a certain Chinese fried chicken establishment last Saturday afternoon and shot dead the woman who was serving him.
These witnesses will talk to friends and relatives. They may even be persuaded to talk to the press. But they don’t want talk to the police. .
Even if they are persuaded to talk to the cops, they most certainly will not want to go to court to testify about what they saw!
They know what happens to people who come forward to give evidence. Many are terrorized. Some are killed? Members of their family have been hurt. The police have been able to offer them no protection and no compensation for their loss.
If law enforcement wants to count on the collaboration of the public to reduce crime, it must provide a secure and safe way for witnesses to give evidence. Law enforcement must find innovative ways to secure the evidence needed to win a conviction.
Various ideas have been discussed in the press - for example: video-taped statements, pre-trial evidence taken under oath in private, and quick trials within 30 days of the offence.
There may be other effective ways of gathering and preserving the evidence. In many developed cities there are surveillance cameras which help to identify law-breakers. More and more business places in Belize are going for this option. Surveillance cameras are expensive, but they can be worth their weight in silver if they help to save lives.
The trend towards surveillance cameras could be speeded up if government were to provide incentives for people to buy and install these cameras. Certainly it is an option which every conscientious business-owner should consider.
Murder in Belize has become a business! Many times we look in the wrong places for motive and we don’t find any. But when we understand that unscrupulous people can now safely pay money to have an adversary or an enemy “removed,” we begin to understand the enormity and grotesque nature of the problem.
At his press conference this week, the Prime Minister promised that he would look for ways to protect witnesses who have important testimony to offer. We believe that this is the key. The first priority for our justice system must be to obtain and preserve the evidence!
Even if we decide to deal severely with killers by invoking the death penalty; even if we amend our Constitution to change the way we put killers on public trial, we first have to catch them before we can hang them!
But we are not catching them. And we will not be able to catch them unless or until we can build new confidence in the witness programme and find a way for witnesses to deliver their testimony in safety