gall and gumption

Monday, February 02, 2009

Progress!

It may have flashed on your screen for a second or so that a man was hanged for murder in St. Kitts on Dec. 19 -- the first execution in 10 years.

The execution closed out a year in which St. Kitts-Nevis saw 22 murders. The last killing of 2008 was particularly brazen and outrageous: a drive-by shooting on Nov. 30, outside of a nightclub in a village called Cayon. Two people were killed and four were injured. When you consider that the island's population is about 40,000, then you can appreciate that 22 in one year is a very high murder rate.

When I was in the Federation in 2002-2004 gun crimes were much less frequent, but the gang problem was in evidence. On Friday afternoons work sort of coasts to a halt in Basseterre, and people come out of offices and shops and linger about the street to socialize. Vendors sell treats and a local calypsonian sets up a speaker box and a mike and sells CDs of his own music. Some people hit the downtown bars for a beer or two, sitting at the outdoor tables or on the balconies, it's all very social and pleasant. But that's among the grownups. Walking among them are De Yout', small groups of young men from their early teens into their early twenties, on the same sidewalks at the same time. The two groups, the older workers and the troops of De Yout', don't really interact. They share the physical space but each group inhabits a social space remote from the other. Two parallel universes. Well before dark most of the workers and businesspeople will go home, some to rest and dress for the real "lime" that actually starts after ten, at the beach bars and nightclubs. And then later that night you heard that police had to break up a bottle-throwing war on those exact same respectable downtown streets.

One of the earliest editorials I wrote as a newspaper editor in St. Kitts deplored a trend I noticed in the gang attacks (some fatal, some not) that were occurring on the island. It was common for several attackers to jump on one individual. When David "Grizzly" Lawrence was killed in 2002, for example, it was five or six young guys who chased him out of a nightclub and stabbed him to death with knives and at least one ice pick. One of the accused said they attacked him because Lawrence had bumped into him while dancing.

But here's something about Lawrence. He had been a bodyguard and who knows what other functionary for Charles "Little Nut" Miller. It was Lawrence who was charged with killing the police officer Jude Matthew, who was helping the DEA keep an eye on Miller. Lawrence was tried three times for killing Matthew, and each time there was a hung jury. But in 2002, with Miller in federal prison in the U.S., Lawrence was a guy who had run with the biggest gangster, who was supposed to have killed a police officer, who had walked away free from three trials for murder, and who might have been enjoying political patronage, of the kind that Little Nut or Vivian Blake had enjoyed in Jamaica.

If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.

When the guys (six at first, but two were released without charge) who allegedly attacked Lawrence were arrested and charged, there were cheering crowds at the courthouse, their fans. The court reporter at the paper told me this, She didn’t like court reporting; her real interest was fashion and music and the “youth” beat. She asked me if she could refer to the suspects in her story as “The Fantastic Four.” I don’t know when I’ve ever taken so much satisfaction in saying, simply and bluntly, “No.” At subsequent court appearances of the Fantastic Four, the cheering fans faithfully attended.

Well, it would be worth doing what I have no means to do now: look at the number of convictions and the types of sentences that are given over the last 9-10 years, and – this is important – who keeps turning up in connection with some of these serious crimes, and the web of family relations and political allegiances to which they belong.

After the Nov. 30 shooting in Cayon, the Prime Minister, Denzil Douglas, made a very angry speech about violence and values in his weekly radio broadcast, "Ask the Prime Minister." People were not raising children with the care that they had when he was a boy, etc. Then there was a flurry of activity -- a "national consultation" and the hiring of a crime consultant, a former FBI agent, among other things -- and then, out of a clear blue sky, a notice of execution posted on the wall of the prison barely 24 hours before the deed was to be done.

The man who was executed was Charles LaPlace, aged 40, from the village of Fig Tree. He had killed his wife, Diana, in a fit of rage, the kind of rage that you see in, say, the tragedies of Euripides. There were witnesses, the neighbors who tried unsuccessfully to stop him.

That was one of a few what I guess you could call "monster" killings--as distinct from "gangster" killings that have occurred there. An enraged spouse or boyfriend attacks the woman in his life. I would not be surprised to learn that these crimes are the end of a pattern of domestic and relationship abuse. If you really wanted to prevent that kind of crime, you'd have domestic violence shelters and you would have maybe an educational campaign telling women to leave if they are physically abused, and then you'd have strong domestic violence laws and actually enforce them.

It was reasonable for a man under sentence of death to expect that the sentence would not be carried out, either because the sentence would be thrown out, or simply because a sort of inertia in the country’s justice system was tending that way. Even Jamaica, with its violence and extrajudicial killings and its recent re-endorsement of the death penalty, rarely carries out executions. Now, clearly, that state of affairs doesn't guarantee that someone won't be executed. But it does open the question of what a government is up to when it suddenly bucks its own trend.

That’s why I was struck by the abruptness of the proceedings in the hanging of Charles LaPlace. Later on Dec. 19, Dr. Douglas referred to the execution during the budget debate in Parliament.

“Another life taken. It is a human life, but we have to be certain that there is a deterrent among our people in taking another man’s life. We have a resolve to deal with the issue of crime and violence in this country,” said Prime Minister Douglas in the National Assembly during debate of the 2009 Budget for the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis.


But if you wanted to use the death penalty to deter people from committing gang crime, why not execute a person who committed one of those? Why hang a 40-year-old man who killed his wife in a fit of homicidal rage? Why kill a man who was not, whatever else he might have been, a gangster?

LaPlace had apparently not exhausted his appeals; he had missed the filing deadline. How was that possible?

Dr. Douglas, who is also Minister of National Security, disclosed that a Notice of Appeal was later filed with the Court of Appeal but was dismissed on the 29th October 2008 for being filed out of time.


LaPlace did not have a lot of money. Fig Tree is not a village of rich people. And where in other cases, family and friends might be tapped for help (not just money but influence) I think the revulsion that people felt at the crime they witnessed put that out of the question. In effect, he had been abandoned.

Second was possibly the reasonable assumption that justice would be considered served if LaPlace stayed in prison—that there was no urgency in the case, that the death sentence was in effect a sort of formality that would, in due course of time, be commuted to life, and since it would not be carried out, one could go about appealing it in a rather desultory way.

The third theory is that LaPlace’s lawyer was completely incompetent.

When a thing should not be done at all, it’s a moot point whether it can be done well or for right motives, but even if I were not completely and unreservedly opposed to the death penalty, I should consider this execution a sin against LaPlace and against justice.

LaPlace was considered disposable; his life could be made use of to send a message totally unrelated to anything he did. He could be made use of in this way because no one would mind. It was a sort of economical thinking at work, macabre, really. Make a statement against crime but make it cheaply, with minimum political cost.

What makes it even worse, to me, is that the “economy” of it is so narrow, the point to be gained so trivial and small. It was throwing a bit of red meat to that portion of the electorate that wanted red meat but didn’t want to pay for it. And in order to do that you had to cheapen the idea of human life and to deny Charles LaPlace his dignity – steal it from him. Because his dignity was his right to stand—even with the hangman’s noose around his neck--as a human being, and not as the object of small political calculations.

Amnesty International protested the execution, of course, and the government reacted with the usual windy, empty defensiveness--part bluster and part whining--with which Caribbean countries meet criticism of their human rights practices. So that was handled.

Worse was yet to come.

If you hang around me for any length of time sooner or later you will hear me use an old Jamaican word, butu. What is butu? Butu is the term you would use to describe a person completely unaware of how disgusting his own actions are until he happens across a three-page account of them in the pages of the Daily Mail, and sees those actions for the first time, not in the context of local, small political calculations, but as a narrative of squalid, callous fecklessness, laid before the eyes of the world: the prison guards playing cards and drinking, within earshot, while LaPlace lay in his cell, weeping and calling for his mother; the hangman a beach gigolo hired for the job and paid EC$1800. It just never occurred to anybody to preempt criticism by ensuring that the whole thing was conducted transparently with a dignified, thoughtful, and appropriately solemn sense of the occasion.

The people of these islands are painfully sensitive to criticism from outside. By which I do not necessarily mean they listen to it and learn: they just let loose the crazy. The Prime Minister responded, though he could hardly be said to offer a substantive refutation of the details.

“Executions are never supposed to be something that one celebrates no matter how many individuals or organizations can defend this act. Executions are serious; they are sober acts and should be treated as such and that is exactly how this was treated here in St. Kitts and Nevis last month -sober, reflective, serious.”

Douglas asserted that the January 10 “sensational submission to a sensationalist tabloid” could not dictate how the people of St. Kitts-Nevis are viewed, despite it being circulated to over two million people on its date of publication.

“That tabloid cannot define us as a people. We in St. Kitts-Nevis have accomplished a great deal, as did those who came before us. Let us bear that in mind as we continue to calmly move our great country forward…and [that paper] does not have the power to determine who we are and what we are.”

The local response to the article and Amnesty International’s condemnation of Laplace’s hanging has been considerable, with many individuals calling for the executions of other death row inmates to be expedited.


Indeed. Why let some newspaper do what they can do so well for themselves?

13 Comments:

At 1:40 PM, Blogger Chuckling said...

I wonder how many of those violent criminals spent time in the U.S.? It's well-documented that Salvadoran gangs are heavily influenced by U.S. returnees. I've seen some mean lookin dudes wearing the St. Kitts flag at the Jouvert parade. Has anyone asked that question?

 
At 1:57 PM, Blogger Kia said...

It's a good question. Deportees are supposed to be influential in Jamaica and Guyana. I don't think St. Kitts has deportees in anything like those numbers. The deportees tend to be a little older than the gangs in SKN, and they are just as likely to end up victims. The one I knew had done well as a professional businessman, in distribution and collections. He was deported although he had never lived in St. Kitts since he was about four. He was set upon, beaten and stabbed by a gang of younger local guys and it left him crippled in one hand because as a deportee he couldn't go abroad for treatment. While I was there I covered at least one more such attack of younger guys on an older dude. The tribalism is not imported, I think; its newer means of expression are. A year or two ago the Minister of National Security complained about YouTube videos that the young guys were posting, all gangster-themed. Down that part of the world they tend to think it's imported American media culture--all they ever get at the island's one movie theater is hip hop films--is to blame for the abandonment of good old-fashioned Victorian family values. They seem to get a lot of comfort out of telling themselves this.

 
At 1:46 AM, Blogger Richard the Nomad said...

I am apalled by the action of St. Kitts. Suffice it to say the execution upheld no human rights principles whatsoever. What really bothers me is that this was done in my name.

How you might ask? As an American, it's my dollars the government claimed to be chasing and fearful of losing. Thus, this execution was carried out to act as a deterrent so that St. Kitts continues to attract American and European tourists. It's just disgusting.

I've scratched the island off of my list of countries I want to visit because of this. It may be a one-man protest, but the island will get none of my money. I want the government to know that they lost one tourist because of this murder and didn't protect. Thus, this heinous act had the opposite affect and served to make certain that one fewer persons visit the island for the foreseeable future.

Thanks for the great post.

Richard the Nomad

 
At 5:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a kittitian and I can not believe that anyone in their right mind would defend such a cold blooded murderer. Let me tell you something, MURDER IS MURDER, whether it was gang related or done in "homicidal rage". I wonder if you would feel this way if this was your mother, your sister, or maybe your daughter.

I have a problem when people forget about the victim and start to defend the criminal.

Diana was called by Charles and he proceeded to lie to her telling her that her child was sick and she needed to come home immediately. Shortly after she arrived he viciously attacked her with a knife stabbing at her. She ran for her life, screaming for help into the streets. Neighbours threw stones at him, attacked him, and he kept stabbing and she grew weaker and weaker, looking at the man she once loved, who fathered her children. Then, as if he wasn't satisfied, slit her throat.

We robbed him of his dignity??? Are you kidding me? He deserved what he got. Where was his dignity as he murdered his wife? Where was his dignity when he so savagely murdered the mother of his children? This was premeditated! He sealed his fate!

Call me barbaric, but why in the world should i care about a man like that? We celebrated his execution because it is about time justice is served.

MURDER IS MURDER, but you seem to think that gang related murders are worse than the murder of an innocent mother, daughter, sister.

Laplace exhausted all of his appeals. Don't blame that on the government. Blame that on his lazy lawyer who probably knew he deserved the death penalty. Why wasn't someone else hung, oh don't worry, their time is coming soon.

Now, everyone is entitled to their own opinion but Laplace is no innocent. He abused Diana for years. But before you start defending him and how he was crying for his mother and bla bla bla, remember Diana who drove home to see her "sick child" and was met with a maniac that stabbed her repeatedly and lifted her head and sliced her throat apart. Remember Diana who scrabbled to get away and screamed and fought for her life. She committed no crime, she had done nothing wrong to deserve this, except for maybe loving and marrying Charles Laplace.

 
At 5:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Additionally, to the tourist who scratched us off of his list, be thankful that St. Kitts carries out the laws of the land to deter violent crimes so that St. Kitts could be a better place for not only you, but for me!

 
At 2:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David lawrence was my daddy i miss him and they killed him and now his three kids are living farther less...I still remember his funeral and how much I cried ... R.I.P DADDY I WILL FOREVER LOVE YOU

 
At 2:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ALL YOU PEOPLE WHO SAY ST.KITTS IS A BAD PLACE GO KICK ROCKS AWU ONLY HEARING BOUT 1 MURDER AND AWU TALKING BOUT THE ISLAND IS A BAD PLACE ... America is just as bad so i dont get it

 
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