Policing Profanity

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Clovis cartoon, Jamaica Observer, April 17, 2017

My Gleaner column of 19/4/17

If I were ever to be tried for murder I would want QC Valerie Neita Robertson as my lead defense attorney. For as we have seen in the case of hapless Kay-Ann Lamont, murdered with her 8-month old fetus for using ‘indecent language’ after being robbed while out shopping for school supplies for her children, Neita Robertson is able to move juries to do the unimaginable: acquit her killer of murder, manslaughter or any kind of wrong-doing whatsoever.

Police Corporal Smart, who killed Kay-Ann Lamont, was regarded as “a very mild-mannered police officer” and his defense was accident, intermingled with self-defense, according to Director of Public Prosecution Paula Llewellyn. In fact the DPP’s statements about this trial are instructive. The Jury, she says, was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the guilt of the accused with respect to murder, manslaughter or wounding with intent in respect of Kay-Ann Lamont’s sister, also shot by the policeman, was made out.

In an interview with RJR’s Dionne Jackson-Miller the DPP explained that Corporal Smart heard expletives being uttered, decided to make a “lawful arrest” but in attempting to restrain Lamont while trying to “overcome her resistance” to arrest, there was a struggle during which his gun accidentally went off. ”A lot of members of the public are not aware that when a policeman is making a lawful arrest he doesn’t even have to touch you, he only needs to say ‘I am arresting you’ and the citizen has a duty to comply, then you complain after,” explained the DPP.

A video shot by an onlooker was pressed into evidence and Prosecution called five eye witnesses, including two sisters of the deceased, one of them the wounded complainant, to testify to the jury how their sister had received her injuries. There were also two policemen testifying for the crown and an independent businessman with no connections to either side. “But remember” continued the DPP, “the jurors are not only listening to the evidence being given they are also observing the witnesses give their evidence, observing their demeanour, their tone, their manner.”

The accused, Corporal Smart, had six character witnesses and according to the DPP was crying throughout the trial, and from his antecedents, the statements of his character witnesses and his demeanour—“he was a very soft-spoken, mild-mannered policeman who had an excellent report from the character witnesses about how he conducted himself professionally so you go back to what the jurors as common-sense persons coming from different backgrounds would have been looking at and observing…They can see elements when human rights are being infringed and they see police brutality, examples of it, but they can also see when members of the public are not being disciplined or not obeying when a police officer is seeking to effect a lawful arrest (pl retain italics). So it is finally left to the jury to observe, listen and assess the demeanour of the witnesses and the accused to decide can they be sure beyond a reasonable doubt of the guilt of the accused.”

I was struck by the DPP’s repeated emphasis on the ‘demeanour’ of the witnesses, in particular the two sisters of the deceased. What does this suggest? That their demeanour was somehow not appropriate enough to work in their favor while the ‘demeanour’ of the policeman—‘mild-mannered’ ‘decent and honourable’ according to the defense attorney, sobbing uncontrollably in court during proceedings and verdict somehow gave him the edge as far as good citizenship was concerned while the dead woman, first in cursing her bad luck at being robbed, and then resisting arrest by the policeman for the ‘crime’ of doing so had somehow wantonly squandered her right to go about her business? Her demeanour wasn’t one of milk toast niceness and obedience so ultimately she was herself responsible for losing her life at the hands of this ‘decent and honourable’ policeman?

QC Neita-Robertson explained in a separate interview that the video showed the 8-months pregnant Lamont and her two sisters advancing on Corporal Smart who then drew his gun in ‘self-defence’. In retreating the policeman fell and his firearm went off killing Kay-Ann Lamont and injuring her sister. The shooting itself was not caught on video but the accused claimed that he was attacked by a crowd who were supportive of the sisters. This claim according to Neita-Robertson was corroborated by a crown witness who testified that crowds in Yallahs “have a habit of attacking police and disarming them.” Of course with the Police’s record of abuse of power and extra-judicial killings this is hardly surprising if true.

Ultimately as the DPP kept repeating “This case also involved whether a lawful arrest was being effected.” And there in my mind lies the rub. Had there not been a law proscribing the use of expletives in public Kay-Ann Lamont would still be alive and so would her unborn child who would have been five this year. At a time when the DPP complains of an acute shortage of court rooms to try the many serious criminal cases that keep being postponed as a result, this case tied up a courtroom, legal luminaries, jurors and judge for five whole weeks.

Isn’t it about time we did a cost-benefit analysis of the law against ‘indecent language’ to assess what exactly the gains are compared to the egregious loss of life demonstrated by this case? Why is the law and order system so intent on criminalizing the use of expletives while allowing alleged criminal masterminds such as Tesha Miller and others to operate without hindrance? Is something being lost in translation here?

Author: Annie Paul

writer, editor and avid tweeter anniepaulose@gmail.com

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