Haitian woman who lives in North Caicos and was sentenced to life in prison for killing her five-year-old son in 2015, is now a free woman.
The Turks and Caicos Islands Court of Appeal said the verdict that Darline St. Louis was guilty of manslaughter of her infant son, was “a gross miscarriage of justice”.
The three judges, Barbadian Sir Elliott Mottley, QC, (now retired) Justice of Appeal Neville Adderley of The Bahamas and Justice of Appeal Roger Hamel-Smith of Trinidad, allowed her appeal, set aside the guilty verdict and entered a plea of not guilty in her favour.
St. Louis was represented by attorneys Tim Prudhoe and Willin Belliard (now Governor’s Appointed Member in the House of Assembly), while Latisha Williams appeared for the Crown.
The prosecution’s case was that Joas, her infant son, who was 5 years old, died at the home of his parents Jean Renaud and Darline St. Louis on North Caicos.
Joas last attended school on September 29th, 2015. Around 2 p.m. the father and the mother picked the children up from school and took them home. The father left the children with the mother and returned to work.
On that day, his teacher, Ms. Narissa Forbes stated that apart from his eyes appearing red as if he had been crying, Joas showed no signs of discomfort.
Around 6:00 pm the father returned home from work. He found his wife lying down on “something” which his wife had placed on the floor. Both of the children, Joas and Regino were lying down and appeared to be sleeping.
Around 7:00pm, the mother left home to go to church which was nearby. Around 8:00pm, the father stated he called Joas because he usually helped him with his homework. Joas did not respond, and he called him again and he still did not answer. The father then went to Joas, who appeared not to be breathing. The father touched Joas but his body did not feel normal. Joas was not breathing and his father did not feel any pulse.
The father then went to the church where his wife had gone earlier in the evening and spoke to the pastor and requested him to pray because he could not understand what had happened.
The father then called the doctor, Dr. David Bernardo went to the house and examined Joas; the doctor pronounced Joas dead. Dr. Bernardo formed the opinion that Joas had been electrocuted because of the redness of his torso.
He said that when Joas’s body was lifted he heard a cracking sound from his neck which suggested to him that his neck was broken.
DOCTOR SAID BOY WAS BEATEN TO DEATH
Dr. Katherine Kenerson who at the date of the trial was employed in Miami Dade Medical Faculty as a Miami-Dade Associate Medical Examiner, for two and a half years, conducted a post-mortem on the body. The doctor stated that the cause of death based on the autopsy finding was due to multiple blunt injury evidenced by haemorrhaging in both buttocks, cutaneous abrasions, contusions as well as underlined diffuse confluent soft tissue bleeding of the buttocks, lower back, on both sides and hands of face till this bleeding led to acute blood loss which subsequently led to his death. The doctor went on to state that Joas was beaten to death.
The Court of Appeal judges said it is important to appreciate that no direct evidence was led by the prosecution showing who inflicted the injuries on Joas. They said the prosecution’s case was based on circumstantial evidence.
The evidence showed that the father drove the appellant to the school where they collected the children around 2:00pm. The father took the mother and the children home. After spending a short time at the house, he returned to work. At 6:00pm, the father returned home from work when he saw the mother lying down on the floor with the children. At that time, the children were sleeping. The mother left home around 7:00pm prior to going to church, leaving the children with the father.
The judges said the prosecution was asking the jury to infer that the mother inflicted the injuries on Joas sometime between his returning home from school at 2:00pm and 6:00pm when the father returned home. Around 8:00pm the father discovered that Joas was not breathing and had no pulse.
It was noted that while the prosecution’s case was that the mother inflected the injuries on Joas sometime between 2:00pm and 6:00pm, in the absence of any direct evidence of who inflicted the injuries, it was necessary for the prosecution to rule out the father as the person who inflicted the injuries.
According to the judgment, Detective Sgt. Ensa Wilson stated that on 29 September 2015, a report was received concerning the death of a six-year-old boy in Bottle Creek, North Caicos.
On 30 September 2015, she travelled to North Caicos. The Sergeant conducted investigation into the death of Joas and on 9 October 2015, she arrested Darline St. Louis on suspicion of murder of Joas and cautioned her which she did with the aid of an interpreter.
The mother made no response. Jean St. Louis, the father was also arrested by the Sgt. Wilson on suspicion of murder of Joas. The father was also cautioned in Creole and made no response. While the mother refused to give a caution statement, her husband, who speaks English, on 12 October 2015, gave a statement to the police having been cautioned.
The judgment noted that Sgt. Wilson gave evidence of conducting an interview with the mother, in which she posed over a hundred questions to her and the mother only responded to a few of the questions.
The judges said many of the questions asked by Sgt. Wilson contained “prejudicial and unfounded assertions which were not based on any evidence led in the trial”.
The Court of Appeal judges stated: “The judge Robert Shuster), in the opinion of the Court (of Appeal), ought not to have allowed evidence relating to the interview conducted by Sgt. Wilson to be admitted into evidence as it had no probative value and was highly prejudicial to the appellant. However, having admitted the interview into evidence it was incumbent on the judge to direct the jury that the truth of the assertion contained in the questions should be ignored and should not be used to establish the truth of the assertions contained in the questions.”
The Court of Appeal judges stated: “It was most improper and highly prejudicial for Sgt. Wilson to put to the mother that she hated Joas when absolutely no evidence led by the prosecution to that effect or of circumstances from which such hatred could be inferred. The suggestion of hating Joas could also have been used by the jury as a motive to infer that she abused and killed Joas. It was also most improper and highly prejudicial for Sgt. Wilson to put to the mother that she beat Joas and killed him.”
They added: “The judge had conduct of the trial and would have appreciated that absolutely no evidence was led that the mother had abused Joas or that she had killed him. Further, the judge should also have appreciated that the prosecution’s case against the mother was based on circumstantial evidence and that there was no direct evidence that the mother had beaten Joas or that she had killed him. The prosecution was inviting the jury to come to the conclusion based on circumstantial evidence not direct evidence that the mother was responsible for her son’s death. It is impossible to say what the impact this unfounded assertion would have had on the jury. To ask the mother “how long have you been beating Joas” suggests that the police had evidence to this effect. The prosecution led no evidence of this beating.”
NO EVIDENCE THAT MOTHER BEAT OR ABUSED CHILD
The Court of Appeal Judges said the prosecution did not establish by direct evidence that the mother at any stage beat or abused Joas.
Moreover, they said, the prosecution did not establish by any evidence that the father at any stage beat or abused Joas.
The judges said: “The jury was being asked to infer that sometime after 2:00pm and before 6:00pm on Tuesday 29 September 2015 the mother beat and caused the death of Joas. That would have been a logical inference had the time of death been established as occurring during that period of time.
However, no evidence was led to that effect. On the other hand, no evidence was led to show that the death occurred between 7:00 pm and 8:00 pm when the children were left with their father.”
“The most that the prosecution could prove were that (i) the death of Joas could have occurred during the period 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm while in custody of the mother and (ii) during the period of 6:00 pm and 7:00 pm while both parents were at home; or (iii) during the period 7:00 pm and 8:00 pm.”
The Court of Appeal said the trial judge should have informed the jury that there was no evidence that the death occurred in either one of the three time phases mentioned above.
“It should be noted that, while the judge told the jury that the prosecution’s case was based on circumstantial evidence, at no stage did the judge explain what is meant by the term, “circumstantial evidence”. The judge did not explain to the jury that the prosecution was relying on different “pieces of evidence relating to different circumstances, none of which on their own directly prove the appellant’s guilt, but which taken together leave no doubt that the appellant was guilty”. The judge did not assist the jury by directing them on what was the various pieces of evidence on which the prosecution was relying, “the Court of Appeal judges added.
The three judges said that in their opinion, the judge was under a duty to explain the circumstances on which the prosecution was relying to prove the guilt of the appellant.
“The judge should have reminded the jury that the evidence showed that both parents, mother and father collected the children from school about 2:00 pm and took them home. The mother remained at home with the children while the father returned to his work. The evidence showed that around 6:00 pm, the mother left the home. 38. Confronted as they were with that problem the judge was required to inform the jury in clear and simple terms that if they were left in any reasonable doubt it was their duty to return a verdict of not guilty. This the judge failed to do,” the Court of Appeal noted.
“Had the judge reviewed the circumstantial evidence as set out above, together with the fact that both the father and mother were arrested by the police on suspicion of murdering Joas, the judge would have appreciated that it was necessary to approach the father’s evidence with caution as he was the only person who said that it was around 8:00 pm that he found Joas was dead.”
“This was important in the circumstances where no evidence was led as to the time of death. 40. In these circumstances, it was imperative that the jury be given a clear direction that if having considered the evidence, they are left in reasonable doubt, the defendant must be given the benefit of that doubt. Such a directive was necessary where from the evidence the injuries could have been inflicted by either the mother or the father or both.”
It was noted that Ms. Forbes, a teacher of Adelaide Ohlmer Primary School in Bottle Creek taught the Kindergarten Class in which Joas was a pupil.
She said that, sometime during the second week of the school term which began on 5 September, she had noticed a mark on Joas’s arm “like he was beaten with a belt or to me a cord.”
As a result, Ms. Forbes took Joas to the principal and spoke with her. Ms. Forbes stated that she formed the impression that Joas was being abused at home. Through an interpreter, Joas stated that he had fallen.
Ms. Forbes went on to state in her evidence without objection by counsel for the defendant, “I turned to the principal and I said to her that there is no way he could fall and obtain marks to his neck and his arm”.
Ms. Forbes said that the principal spoke to the mother who said that Joas had fallen. In response to a question from Crown Counsel, Mrs. Forbes said she did not say anything to the mother when she said that Joas had fallen.
Counsel for the prosecution was allowed to ask Ms. Forbes, without objection from counsel for the defendant, whether she formed a view on what the mother had said. Ms. Forbes responded, “Yes, I thought to myself that she had coached him into saying that he had fell and it was her story as well.”
The Court of Appeal held the view that Ms. Forbes ought not to have been allowed to give evidence of what her feeling or conclusion were, especially in circumstances when the basis of that feeling or conclusion was not made known to the jury.
“The prejudicial value of this statement far outweighs any probative value. By this statement it was open to the jury to place an interpretation that the appellant had coached Joas to say he had fallen because she wanted to cover up her abuse of Joas. Again, having allowed the statement into evidence, it was incumbent on the judge, in the circumstances, to warn the jury that they should ignore what Ms. Forbes had said about the mother coaching her son and, above all, they could not draw any inference that she had coached Joas to mislead his teacher to hide her abuse of the son. Not having warned the jury to ignore the evidence was in the opinion of the Court, a miscarriage of justice,” the Court of Appeal added.
The Court of Appeal said it is the responsibility of a trial judge to ensure that an accused person who appears before him charged with a criminal offence has a fair trial.
“In the context of this case, a fair trial meant that the evidence produced by the prosecution was probative of the guilt of the mother. It included the responsibility on the part of the judge to ensure that evidence which was prejudicial to her should not be admitted into evidence. In our opinion, the judge failed to accord the mother the protection granted to her as enshrined in the constitution and did not ensure that the mother had a fair trial when he allowed and/or permitted the “caution interview” to be admitted into evidence and without giving the required caution to the jury.”