By NICO SCAVELLA
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE Court of Appeal has overturned a man's armed robbery conviction, though reluctantly did not order a retrial because it would not be in the “interests of justice” to keep him in custody just to be retried and quite possibly acquitted.
Appellate Justices Stella Crane-Scott, Sir Michael Barnett and Milton Evans unanimously agreed that Leonard Wright “should not be required to undergo the ordeal” of a new trial and be “exposed to the risk” of an even longer sentence, or an outright acquittal.
This, they said, was because if a retrial is ordered, it would likely come off the ground in 2021 due to the Supreme Court’s calendar, meaning Wright would have to be in custody for some six years. Whereas, his former sentence had him pegged to be released in 2022.
In any event, the appellate judges suggested that an acquittal is very much a possibility if a retrial was ordered, because the Crown was unable to satisfy three of the nine jurors of Wright’s guilt, and that its case was “not as strong” as the Crown felt it was.
According to the ruling, on May 23, 2015, Iris Davis was at Superwash’s Minnie Street and Robinson Road location working the 7am-3pm shift as a cashier.
At around 3pm, while sitting in the cashier’s cage, someone swung her around in her chair and said, “Don’t watch nothing”. Ms Davis initially thought it was a co-worker pranking her. However, when she faced the person she saw a t-shirt on their head.
At that point, Ms Davis realised that the situation was not a game as she saw a gun in the person’s hand. The gunman looked at her before grabbing the t-shirt and placing it back over his head. He subsequently leaned over, grabbed Ms Davis’ cellphone and walked away slowly.
Ms Davis said she had the gunman in her sights for about two to three minutes. She said he was about one to two feet away from her when he was standing over her.
She also said she was able to get a good look at the gunman’s face and said she had seen him in Superwash a few times prior to the day in question.
Sometime around 6:45pm on June 4 of that year, Ms Davis identified Wright on an identification parade. He was interviewed that same day, and said he did not rob anyone. He did not give an alibi at that time.
Wright testified that at around 3pm on the date in question, he was at a birthday party with his daughter for his baby mother’s son at the woman’s house on Johnson Alley. Wright also said he was not at Superwash on the date in question and said he had never been in that particular wash house.
Wright also told the court that while he was in custody at the Central Detective Unit (CDU) on June 4, Officer Rolle took him out of the cell and asked him if he wanted to go on an ID parade. Wright said he expressed indifference to going on the ID parade because he didn’t do anything. However, he said an inspector shoved him, causing him to hit his hand on the side of a desk that was in the room. He consequently sustained an abrasion to his left arm.
Wright contended that although the inspector was trying to force him, he decided to participate in the ID parade because he knew he didn’t commit the crime. He further acknowledged that he signed the ID parade form.
However, Wright said the other persons who were placed on the ID parade did not look like him. Wright said he didn’t remember how all of the participants looked, but knew they did not fit his general description. He also claimed that the officers got the other participants from the cell block.
Wright also called five witnesses to testify on his behalf, one of whom was Shantell Gibson. Ms Gibson told the court that at around 3pm on the date in question, she was at home with her children preparing for her grandson’s party that was held at her house. She said Wright arrived at her house at about 2.30pm. At around 2.45pm she asked him to build a small bar in the yard for them, which he did along with her son Justin. Ms Gibson also said Wright did not leave her yard.
On June 9, 2017 however, the jury found Wright guilty 6-3 of armed robbery. He was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment on October 18, 2017.
Wright appealed his conviction, firstly on the grounds that Justice Hilton erred when he allowed the Crown to question Ms Gibson on her previous convictions that did not involve dishonesty, and subsequently failed to direct the jury on how to treat evidence of her previous convictions.
According to the ruling, the Crown established that Ms Gibson was before the courts in relation to stealing and receiving, as well as obstruction, assault, resisting arrest, threats of death and disorderly behaviour. The Crown used those to establish that she was of bad character and thus not a credible witness.
However, the appellate judges said the evidence of her convictions for obstruction, assault, resisting arrest, threats of death and disorderly behaviour were of no probative value and not necessary to “impeach” her credibility.
Rather, they said that evidence “was simply prejudicial in nature”. As a result, the appellate judges said there was a “real danger” that the jury could have concluded that Ms Gibson was being untruthful simply because of the evidence of her bad character.
And as Wright’s defence to the charge was an alibi, the judges noted that though other “flaws” existed in the trial, the trial judge’s failure to prevent the “prejudicial evidence” from being admitted and subsequently failing to warn the jury was all the more “grievous”.
Concerning Wright’s acquittal, the appellate judges said: “In this case (Wright) has been in custody since 2015 and is scheduled to be released in 2022. The reality is that with the present calendar of the Supreme Court he is unlikely to be retried until 2021 and he will have been in custody six years. In our view, albeit with some reluctance, it is not in the interests of justice that (Wright) be required to remain in custody on this charge until he is retried.
“He should not be required to undergo the ordeal of a new trial and be exposed to the risk that on a retrial he may receive an even longer sentence or, as may well be the case having regard to the weakness of the identification evidence, be acquitted by a jury after a proper direction."
Christina Galanos represented Wright on appeal.