Sunday, 28 January 2024 21:07

Firestorm as judge bars media from politician's murder case

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This week's featured overall development as Newsmaker of the Week is the firestorm arising from Thursday's decision by a High Court judge to bar the media and members of the public from viewing proceedings relative to the first appearance of former Member of Parliament (MP) for Western St Mary, Jolyan Silvera, in the Supreme Court in downtown Kingston.

Silvera is charged with the murder of his wife, Melissa.

Minister of Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Marlene Malahoo Forte; the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ), the Media Association of Jamaica, and social media users are among scores of prominent personalities and groups questioning the decision of Supreme Court Judge Justice Vinette Graham Allen.

Speculation is running wild, too, among the general population on what could have influenced the judge's decision, with some persons claiming that if the People's National Party (PNP) politician had no status, the matter would likely be covered by the media.

Graham Allen said she was exercising "discretion" on the day, as it must be applied in every case. However, she did not say why the media and Silvera's family members were being barred from the proceedings.

She has, however, indicated that the media may be allowed to cover the matter at future hearings.

Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Paula Llewellyn was reportedly shocked by the judge's announcement when she arrived at court on Thursday and learnt of the development. However, she said she was bound by the court's decision.

Following the hearing, Silvera’s attorney, King’s Counsel Peter Champagnie, shared with the press that his client is scheduled to return to court on February 8.

The 52-year-old People's National Party (PNP) politician who is a land developer by profession, was charged two Fridays ago with murder following weeks of investigations into the high-profile homicide case.

It was initially reported that Melissa died in her sleep at her Stony Hill, St Andrew home on November 10, but the police upgraded their probe to one of murder after the post-mortem report revealed that her body had at least three bullet fragments.

Champagnie on Thursday disclosed that Silvera is maintaining his innocence, and said he is very apprehensive as well as concerned about what has happened in terms of the charges that have been laid against him.

While he did not share much regarding the court proceedings, Champagnie is hoping to receive disclosure in the matter, and based on the outcome of that process, bail could be sought for the former legislator.

It is understood that a ballistic report is to be provided by prosecutors on the next court date.

But it was the decision of the judge to have the first mention date of the matter held in-camera that has overshadowed the substantive seriousness of the allegations at hand in the Melissa Silvera murder case.

An attorney who is the host of a popular radio talk show, theorised on Friday that based on the indictment she saw, Silvera was also reportedly charged with possession of a prohibited weapon.

The attorney argued that the judge could have possibly based her decision relative to barring the media on that basis, because Gun Court matters are usually held in-camera, meaning without members of the public being present in court.

Malahoo Forte, in a post on X, formerly Twitter, on Friday, said: "As a general rule, #ConstiitutionofJamaica mandates that all

proceedings of every court shall be held in public.

"However, the court may consider the extent to which publicity would prejudice the interests of justice: section 16(3)&(4). In such a case, reason should be given," she suggested.

The PAJ, in its statement on the matter, said it views with "alarm", the judge's decision to bar the media and members of the public from Jolyan Silvera's case.

The association said it wants an immediate reversal of the decision, unless there is a compelling explanation and justification.

"If that is the case, the public must be informed what this is," declared PAJ.

The PAJ charged that the principle of open justice is extremely important in Jamaica, where any member of the public should be free to observe court proceedings, except in exceptional circumstances.

"No reason has been given why this case should be an exception to the open justice principle.

"We see none, and believe that in fact, this case is a prime example of one which must be carefully scrutinised by the media and the public. We therefore call for an immediate reversal of this decision," the PAJ stated.

The Media Association of Jamaica (MAJ) Limited also joined the PAJ in demanding a restoration of media attendance in the murder case involving the PNP politician.

The MAJ expressed "bewilderment that such discretion would have been applied in this already very high-profile case" in the court.

"It is very important that the public is afforded high transparency on this very public matter with implications on public sentiment towards the judiciary and governance of the country," it stated.

Prominent attorney Bert Samuels said he was also at a lost about why the matter was held outside of public view.

"Open court is a constitutional guarantee to people... There are exceptions, for example, family matters involving children are exceptions," he told reporters on Friday.

In relation to the case in question, Samuels said he does not think evidence was being heard, so he was not "convinced, in my own mind, of the justification to bar the press."

On social media platforms, Jamaicans expressed various perspectives on the judge's decision.

"Not saying it (Jolyan Silvera's court case) needs to be a spectacle, but like the common criminal, he shouldn't get any special treatment/privacy. But see yah," said a woman on X.

"The judge erred in making this decision," a man opined, adding that, "She (the judge) will now have citizens speculating on why, how, (and) what she trying to achieve... by making this decision!"

But not all persons agreed with those opinions.

Said a woman: "If investigations are still ongoing in the matter, regardless of public interest, the judge may feel that it is necessary to keep the matter private in order to, in my view, not allow any suspects to know vital information."

Shared another: "The judge applied the rule of law because it's a gun matter as well, and those cases are not heard in public, based on my little knowledge of the law."

On Facebook, the range of views also persisted there.

"The judge owes an explanation to the Jamaican public for this very (supposedly) suspicious decision," a male Facebook user said.

"The judge's decision is one of the reasons why people do not trust the criminal justice system. There has to be total transparency and no one under any circumstances should get preferential treatment, rich or poor," said a woman.

But a man took issue with the overall criticisms levelled at the judge.

"Stop demonising the judge and the justice system when you know that every case is unique. Ignorance is no exception to the law," the man argued.