BELMOPAN, Belize, Monday October 22, 2018 – A convicted murderer who began serving a life sentence five year ago, is now a free man, after the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) overturned his conviction as a result of unreliable identification evidence from a witness during his trial.
The CCJ ordered the release of 25-year-old Japhet Bennett, who was convicted in 2013 of the September 13, 2009 shooting death of Ellis Meighan in Belize City, after hearing his appeal.
Bennett’s lawyer, Audrey Matura, said she was pleasantly surprised by the court’s decision, given that the hearing which Anthony Sylvester led for the defence in her absence, was intended to be a leave for permission to appeal the Belize Court of Appeal decision in her client’s case, and not the actual appeal.
“We had expected that [the] decision would have been whether they gave us the permission, the special leave to appeal. But what they did, the hearing for the special leave to appeal, they treated it as the appeal and they gave a full-blown decision,” she explained.
A five-member CCJ allowed Bennett’s appeal in a 4-1 majority decision.
In 2009, Bennett’s brother-in-law, Marlon Middleton gave a detailed statement to the police two days after Meighan was shot and killed. He claimed that he was riding his bicycle in the vicinity of the shooting when he heard gunshots and he sped towards the area and saw a body on the ground. He said he saw Bennett standing about two feet away from the body with a gun in his hand.
His statement also revealed that he had been approximately 40 feet away from the body, in a well-lit area, with nothing obstructing his view. Additionally, he stated that he had known Bennett for about four months and had seen him one week before the shooting. But at the trial, Middleton denied that he had seen Bennett at the scene of the crime.
The prosecution pointed out that Middleton had given a contradictory statement to the police and that that statement was made of his own free will and was accurately recorded by a police officer, in the presence of a Justice of the Peace, and signed by Middleton.
The trial judge admitted the statement into evidence and it was read aloud to the jury. There was no other evidence linking Bennett to the shooting. Bennett’s lawyer then requested that the judge stop the case and direct that the jury acquit his client of all charges as there was insufficient evidence linking him to the crime. The judge refused the request and the jury eventually found guilty of murder.
The matter was then appealed to the Court of Appeal of Belize, which upheld Bennett’s conviction.
At the CCJ, Justices Jacob Wit, David Hayton and Winston Anderson found that there had been no other evidence which could have allowed the jury to properly assess the reliability of Middleton’s statement, and for that reason, the trial judge should have stopped the case.
In a separate judgement, Justice Denys Barrow explained that there was no useful value in Middleton’s description of the shooter, his attire and the gun because there was no other evidence to confirm any of these matters. He said that on the evidence “the jury would have been left to guess and could only reach a guilty verdict on a gut feeling”. Additionally, Justice Barrow found the fact that Middleton waited two days to make the statement, in circumstances where he was first on the scene of his sister’s husband murder, undermined the reliability of his statement.
However, Madame Justice Maureen Rajnauth-Lee did not agree with the other members of the panel who heard the appeal. She contended that this was a case where an eyewitness sufficiently recognized someone known to him. In light of the very detailed description of the shooter, and the conditions in which he was identified, she said it was therefore a matter for the jury to determine whether to believe Middleton’s statement to the police or his denial of that statement in court.