by James Milnes Gaskell
By the verdict of the Coroners Court Inquiry into the death of Philo Wallace the Police have achieved a Public Relations disaster. This is also a disaster for the community. All citizens of good will must hope for a police force in which trust can be reposed, and one which will receive information in confidence and act upon it appropriately, quickly and competently resulting in the early apprehension and conviction of law breakers. The declaration of ‘Justifiable Homicide’ in the circumstances of this case in which an off duty police officer took out his service hand gun and shot the 17 year old Philo in the crowded dance hall of Enriques Bar, is simply not believed by this community. People do not need knowledge of the law to feel sure that a fair justice system, one to which we are all entitled in a democratic State, would not have told us that this homicide was justifiable. Apart from the set back to confidence and trust in our police force, the Street says ‘an eye for an eye’, ‘a marked man’, and ‘that is not an end of it’. The reactions of the community/the Street would not have been so unhelpful to the police, had the officer immediately been arrested and charged.
If the police, and perhaps some of the authorities think that this verdict will stand, then, I believe, they are almost certainly wrong. On the face of it the Coroners Act does not allow for a finding of ‘Justifiable Homicide’.
At S.25 (4) the Act says:
‘After hearing the evidence the jury shall give their verdict, and certify it by an inquisition in writing, setting forth, so far as such particulars have been proved to them, who the deceased was, and how, when and where the deceased came by his or her death by murder or manslaughter, the persons, if any, whom the jury find to have been guilty of such murder or manslaughter…’.
There does not appear to be any authority for the jury to assess culpability or lack of it. Indeed you would not expect it. Under our Constitution it is expected that those charged with serious crimes will be brought before a Judge, and a 10-12 man jury in open Court, where both the prosecution and the defense will put their case and where all witnesses may be cross examined as to the truth or relevance of their evidence. It cannot be right, in the absence of the most clear authority, and there is none, for a Coroners Court sitting with Magistrate, not a High Court Judge, and a jury of five persons only, and selected by the police, operating as a Closed Court, not open to public or press, and not allowing cross examination of witnesses to test their veracity, to arrogate to itself the functions and responsibilities of the High Court. No, no, no. This is not right. However in order to find ‘Justifiable Homicide’ there must first be a finding of homicide. This means, if I am correct in my submission that the Coroners Court has no power to reflect or otherwise upon any possible justification for a homicide, then we are left with an actual finding of homicide, but with no decision as to either murder or manslaughter.
The Coroner is obliged to send to the DPP all inquisitions and records of the proceedings within 7 days after the inquest closes. The DPP is in no way bound by the ‘justifiable’ part of the verdict which is, I submit, ultra vires the Coroners Court, and should in whatever way he considers best ensure that the case proceeds towards the High Court.
Here are one or two definitions to help to guide the public in their deliberations. Murder is generally defined in law as an intent to cause serious harm or injury, combined with a death arising from that intention. It is treated as murder when the defendant intended serious harm to one or more persons, but an unintended other person dies as a result. Conduct that was grossly negligent, given the risk of death, and did kill, is manslaughter. As I have submitted it is not within the competence of the Coroners Court to consider justification for a homicide, but the law is that the circumstances under which a homicide is justified are usually considered to be that the defendant had no alternative method of self defense or defense of another than to kill the attacker.
Mr. Wallace, Philo’s father, was, as a courtesy allowed to attend the Inquest. This was held over several weeks, on some Thursdays and Fridays. The police gave him notice of each sitting, except for the last day, which was unexpectedly on a Wednesday, and which comprised the important Coroners summing up and the verdict. He told me that the police officer said he was being beaten and that from a crouching position he saw somebody (the officer did not say who) with ‘an object’ in front of him. As I understand Mr. Wallace, the officer fired from that crouching position. His girlfriend was the only witness to support what he said,in part. The Pathologist said that Philo was shot by someone holding out the gun horizontally at shoulder height and, apparently, he demonstrated this in Court. The remaining about twenty witnesses, with variations, say that there was one altercation only, not involving the officer, and in which the participants were pulled apart, before the fatal shooting.
I and some colleagues took statements from a number of persons who were at Enriques Bar. Some were witnesses at the Inquiry, some had not been interviewed by the police. One said he did not notice anything in particular before the shot. He could not recall any argument or other unusual event. Another said he saw four or five people in an argument, just ‘hard talk’, no fighting.
We will make these statements available to the DPP on written request.
This is not a trial by newspaper. Nor should it have been attempted trial by Inquest. Both the officer concerned and the family of the deceased deserve to have the case tried by a Court holding full powers.
The sooner this happens, the better. We must not allow this verdict to be taken by anyone as provocation towards further violence. Let justice be served, Mr. Acting Director of Public Prosecutions.