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Jan 22, 2002

Journalists discuss nuances of trial

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Ava Lovell

The proceedings in and around the Meerabux case have dominated the news for the last week; today they reached a climax. And while the press is admonished to stick to the facts, sometimes the so-called facts are shaded with so much nuance that the situation calls for some additional explanation. Joining me in the studio are News Director Stewart Krohn and reporter Janelle Chanona. They were both in the courtroom this morning…and I have to ask; Stewart, why the double coverage?

Stewart Krohn

“Ava, it really wasn’t intentional. I think there happened to be two of us there because we’d both been involved in coverage of the case, we know it’s an important case, so I think as journalists we were both intensely interested in it. However, having said that, I’m extremely glad that there were two of us in the courtroom today because quite frankly, had Janelle been covering the case on her own, and she came back and described to me what happened in the courtroom today, I can tell you, I would not have believed it. I really would have been hard pressed, I would have quizzed her stringently. Because it was one of those times, this case is really about procedure, in terms of the law and what’s being argued, you could really never find a more boring case to sit at, but in the courtroom this morning, there was really a sense of human drama. It was a very fluid situation and I think those of us that were there, were sitting at the edge of our seat to see which way it was going to go, because it appeared that unlike many cases where you feel the attorneys are just going through the motions that the case has been argued on paper and it’s just kind of a show, this one there was a real human element.

Janelle, in the story that Ava read earlier, which you wrote, you kind of went through it briefly in such a way that it really didn’t convey some of that emotion. Maybe between the two of us we can fill in some of the blanks to try and give viewers a better understanding of what the ebb and flow was like. For example on the issue of Justice Blackman’s offer to recuse himself, this totally surprised the courtroom.”

Janelle Chanona

“Today was supposed to be the day when attorneys for both sides presented for an hour their concluding arguments, but after Godfrey Smith’s speech yesterday, the judge felt first he had to comment on it. And then he launched this apparent need to say that he had to removed himself from the case at some point, if there was anybody in the courtroom that thought it necessary at that point.”

Stewart Krohn

“Indeed, I think all of us was suspecting the contempt business with the Attorney General, but when the offer to recuse came, I think a lot of people were taken aback. When he made that offer, Elson Kaseke literally bolted out of his seat, thanking the judge for his offer, and immediately took him up on the suggestion, saying that he was going to suggest that he recuse himself anyway.”

Janelle Chanona

“Apparently that was something that they were going to be asking the judge for anyway because of something that had happened previously.”

Stewart Krohn

“Then what was very interesting, was that he kind of in the middle of Mr. Kaseke’s argument, Justice Blackman stopped him from talking because Kaseke was making a very strong case, and said he’s heard enough and that he had already decided that if one of the two legal teams ask for a recusal, he would grant it. So when Justice Blackman said that, it looked like if things done then, that he was gonna leave. I think all of us in our minds were already preparing what our headline would be for the newscast. But then a very strange thing happened…”

Janelle Chanona

“Elrington jumped up and asked to be heard and Justice Blackman said if it was on the same point, are you going to object to what Mr. Kaseke had just said, and he said yes. Justice Blackman said, well I already said that if one said, yes we would like you to go, then I would go. Mr. Elrington kept pressing for time on the floor and was begging at one point to be heard. Finally, Justice Blackman let him say his piece, and after that things got to a point where everyone was wondering, indeed what could happen next.”

Stewart Krohn

“And indeed the surprise came because everyone in the courtroom was certain that Justice Blackman had in fact recused himself from the case. He cut off the Solicitor General Elson Kaseke, he would not let Mr. Elrington speak because it was futile, it was just wasting time. You have to at this point, as a lawyer, take your hat off to Sedi Elrington, because I think anybody else would have just sat down when told to sit down, but Wilfred kept fighting and kept fighting, and finally, there must have been some magic in his words, because when he finally did get his chance to speak, Mr. Elrington made a very strong case. He was referring to Godfrey Smith remarks of the day before. He called Smith’s statements a “blatant and barbaric attack on the judicial system.” He said that every judicial officer would be intimidated by the Attorney General’s words, and he said, looking directly at the Justice Blackman that, “no other judge could be in a better position to deliver justice. Janelle you think Mr. Elrington was engaging a bit of suck-up here?”

Janelle Chanona

“I think he was trying to get on the judge’s good side and side with him, knowing how Justice Blackman felt about what the Attorney General said.”

Stewart Krohn

“After Mr. Elrington’s arguments, then what happened?”

Janelle Chanona

“Justice Blackman called for an adjournment, and I think that at that point I think we realised there was going to be some drama involved afterwards. Whether it was going to be a recuse, we weren’t sure, but then we went to recess.”

Stewart Krohn

“Something began to change, because when we came back from the recess, Justice Blackman asked Denys Barrow to speak. Now remember, Denys Barrow is part of the Attorney General’s legal team, and I think Mr. Barrow was shocked that he was suddenly asked to speak, because as you’ll recall, previously when Mr. Kaseke was speaking in favour of the recusal, Justice Blackman cut him off, almost rudely. And Mr. Barrow replied why do you want me to speak now when you cut off my partner before. There was a lot of testiness there. Finally, the judge really had to implore Denys Barrow to speak, and he made a couple main points then, he said that he was appalled that Wilfred Elrington thought no other judge could dispense equal justice in this case. He thought that was an insult to the other judges. And then interestingly, Denys Barrow went on to defend the Attorney General, saying that he has the same rights as any other litigant to speaks his mind.”

Janelle Chanona

“Which was interesting because of everything else, especially since, I don’t know if you felt the same way, but as a member of the press, hearing Justice Blackman last week say we had to be very careful what we said about this case in our coverage, then to hear the Attorney General speak about it so aggressively, it was…”

Stewart Krohn

“Yeah, you had to wonder what’s going on here. At that point Mr. Kaseke asked to speak, and he then went back to his original argument about the reason for Justice Blackman’s recusal, should be that he had pre-judged the issue. Mr. Kaseke then did a very interesting thing, he turned in fact and drew the court’s attention to you personally for something that happened Friday.”

Janelle Chanona

“I was the only one in the courtroom on Friday afternoon, and what the attorneys were arguing at that point, was whether it was within the Belize Advisory Council’s discretion to have these things en camera, outside of the public eye. During Mr. Courtenay’s presentation, Justice Blackman stopped him and said, listen I don’t understand where you’re coming from because I can tell you now that I find the decision by the council to have these hearings privately is repugnant to the spirit of the constitution. And he went even further and said, basically that if it’s one declaration the Meerabux team will win one, it’s this one. So he had already indicated, or we got the feeling that he was indicating that if no other point would be won by the Meerabux team, it would be that the hearings should have been held publicly. And I guess like the other attorneys in the room, we felt that the judge had already come to a decision on that point and that he had already made up his mind that he was going to win on that.”

Stewart Krohn

“Now, you didn’t report that quite that way on Friday, why not?”

Janelle Chanona

“Because right at the end of the…we concluded about 2:30 that afternoon, and as he was standing up to leave the courtroom, as I said I was the only person in the courtroom from the press, and there was one other person in the room, he looked at me and said, Ms. Chanona, I don’t want that point on your newscast this evening. And when a Supreme Court justice gets up and tell you they don’t want that on your newscast, you make sure it’s not on the newscast. I did quote him as saying it was repugnant to the spirit of the constitution, but I did not mention that he had indicated that he had already made a point on that declaration.”

Stewart Krohn

“Yet it is worth noting that Mr. Kaseke pointed that out in open court today to try and make his point. It was appoint however, that not everyone agreed with, obviously Justice Blackman did not agree with it, and since obviously we can’t interview Justice Blackman, we have a bit of tape in which Wilfred Elrington gives his idea on what he thought Justice Blackman was saying when he made that decision.”

Wilfred Elrington

“I hadn’t seen it in that light at all, I never saw it in that light. If you were there when I was arguing my point, almost after every second or two the judge was interjecting. We saw this as the way in which he provokes you to come up with arguments so that he can go along with you: you tell me, this is in my mind, I am thinking along these lines, convince me otherwise. And this judge has been very active in that way. He poses questions to you, he make comments to you, but to my mind, those all go towards stimulating your interest and putting you to greater effort to persuade him to come to a certain decision.”

Janelle Chanona

“So he caught Mr. Courtenay off guard?”

Wilfred Elrington

“No, well Mr. Courtenay is a very senior attorney. It is not usual for judges to have this kind of interchange with Mr. Courtenay.”

Stewart Krohn

“Now back in court, Mr. Kaseke is now arguing, very forcefully, the opposite, strongly saying that Justice Blackman should recuse himself from the case.”

Janelle Chanona

“And he had several case precedents, quoted several all England report cases, saying that in fact if this had taken place, that he had in fact come to a decision before the conclusion, then it would have been need for him to remove himself from the case.”

Stewart Krohn

“Now Justice Blackman totally rejects this argument, but a change seemed to come over Justice Blackman at this point. Previously at the beginning of the day’s proceedings, he was almost morose, he looked dejected. He looked like a man who was about to walk away from one of the most important constitutional cases in Belize history. All of a sudden he is reborn, he actually changed his mind, or did he change his mind?”

Janelle Chanona

“I don’t know, I think something that Mr. Elrington said to him, hit a nerve, or maybe he was more than just personally offended by what the Attorney General had said, but definitely something changed from when he entered the courtroom. Because now it seemed that he was convinced that he should be the one to continue this case by all accounts, regardless of what the government attorneys were saying.”

Stewart Krohn

“For the record, the strongest argument that Mr. Blackman seemed to give, was that he agreed with Wilfred Elrington’s point, that the remarks really were meant to impair or influence the judgement of everyone in the room, not just him. So for him to recuse himself would really have no effect, because all the justices let’s say, would be equally intimidated. That was the thrust of his arguments, and I think we have another byte from Mr. Elrington where he sums up this argument.”

Wilfred Elrington

“The tendency would be to intimidate the timid souls. You have got to be strong, and strength comes from within. But I can see it having that ability to intimidate certain people, I can see it.”

Janelle Chanona

“Including members of the bench?”

Wilfred Elrington

“Oh yes. Members of the bench are human beings. They are no different than you and I, some of us are bolder, some of us are weaker. But that kind of statement where it is being suggested that this would be a disaster is in fact this man were to be found not liable, which is the judge that is going to be so bold not to take that into consideration? You have to take that into consideration and say, well boy, I run the risk, but let me look to my oath, let me do what the oath prescribes and let the chips fall where they may.”

Stewart Krohn

“Janelle, that’s fine but what about this important issue of prejudgement, because this argument doesn’t really speak to that. What did Justice Blackman say about that?”

Janelle Chanona

“Apparently, on January eleventh they had had a meeting in chambers and the judge said today in open court that he had told them that even if one point in Meerabux’s application was won, it did not necessarily mean that that was it for the case and that they could claim a total victory. And that was the point of today, him saying that even if…I’m not sure if I’m entirely correct in saying that, but there couldn’t have been a pre-judgement because it would not have overturned that natural justice or the natural course of the case.

Stewart Krohn

“In other words, what Justice Blackman emphasised was that even if he did make up his mind about this one out of five points, it did not meant that the case would be decided in favour of Mr. Meerabux.”

Ava Lovell

“Where are we with this case?”

Janelle Chanona

“As I mentioned earlier, the attorneys for both side were allowed an hour this morning into the afternoon, to give their concluding arguments, and Justice Blackman told us that we should expect a verdict within the next six weeks.”

Ava Lovell

“Well, thank you Stewart and Janelle.”


Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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