By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
INQUESTS into police-involved killings are occurring at a quicker pace after years of neglect, Coroner’s Court records show.
Eighteen inquests have been held since January 2018, a significant amount for a court that went years having only a few inquiries. Fourteen of the inquests have resulted in lawful killings, three in unlawful killings and one in an open verdict finding, according to records obtained by this newspaper.
In recent years The Bahamas has experienced a higher rate of police-involved killings than the United States. There were 11 such killings in 2018 and 11 in 2017––a rate of 2.9 per 100,000 people. According to the Washington Post, there were 992 police-involved killings in US in 2018, a rate of 0.3 per 100,000 people.
The Tribune reported in 2017 on the longstanding problem of families waiting years for an inquest into their loved one’s death, with lawyers upset that dates were not reliably set for hearings like in the other courts.
In response, Attorney General Carl Bethel disclosed that there were around 28 outstanding cases of police-involved killings into which an inquest was required. He said he found the delays “distressing” and “unacceptable” and he pledged to seek legislative or administrative fixes to address the problem. Yesterday he said: “Chief Justice Stephen Isaacs (now deceased) spearheaded the appointment of a number of deputy coroners with my support in order to spread the load. Also, the Office of the Attorney General assigned a qualified prosecutor full time to assist the Coroner’s Court in marshaling cases. I must also point out that in Coroner Jeanine Weech-Gomez we have found a very efficient, dedicated and effective coroner.”
When contacted, attorney Bjorn Ferguson, who has represented numerous interested parties in coroner inquests, praised the decision to schedule inquests before Magistrates Kara Turnquest-Deveaux and Carolyn Vogt-Evans and to assign a lawyer from the AG’s Office to marshal cases.
“The OAG used to have difficulty finding counsel with a free diary to assist,” he said, “but now they don’t have that problem because they have someone assigned to the court. The system is not where it needs to be but there’s been a huge improvement.”
Critics note there are still problems with how the justice system deals with police-involved killings. That police officers investigate the killings is seen by many as a conflict. Lawyers also bemoan the process that ensues when jurors return an unlawful killing verdict: officers are only charged with an offence if, upon the reviewing the file, the attorney general or director of public prosecutions determine charges are warranted.