Time passes slowly for Bahamian law courts--more slowly still for prisoners

August 25, 1991|By Fred Tasker | Fred Tasker,Knight-Ridder News Service

Five miles from Nassau's pierside straw markets, hundreds of prisoners, including scores of Americans, live in squalor and filth at the Bahamas' only prison, Fox Hill.

Some will be imprisoned for as long as two years before they are found guilty or innocent of the charges against them.

Recent efforts by American inmates and their families have focused international scrutiny on prison conditions the U.S. State Department has called inhumane, and attention has spilled over to shortcomings in the Bahamian justice system that compound Fox Hill's problems.

Bahamian government officials acknowledge that justice moves slowly in the islands, largely because of an overburdened legal system. Under that system:

* Indigent defendants in the Bahamas do not get court-appointed defense attorneys except in capital cases; one defense attorney estimates that 70 percent of Fox Hill's prisoners were put there without legal representation.

* There is no speedy trial law; criminal trials routinely take up to two years, longer if they are appealed. Defendants routinely get a two-hour hearing, then wait four or five months for another brief hearing.

* Bail is prohibited for non-Bahamians, assuring that every foreigner undergoing trial will wait out the process at Fox Hill. Fifty-six of the 120 or so female prisoners at Fox Hill are Americans, and 26 of them are still awaiting completion of their trials, said prison Superintendent Donald Scott.

* Bahamian law sends defendants to jail if they cannot pay fines levied for misdemeanors, jamming hundreds more into Fox Hill, which was built to hold 500 prisoners but holds at least 1,200. There is no provision for the early release of prisoners.

The daily routine slows the process even further:

* Bahamian magistrates, who try most criminal cases, sometimes work as little as four hours a day.

* Courts do not have professional stenographers, forcing defendants to speak slowly while magistrates write down every word in longhand.

* There is no plea-bargaining system, so every case goes to trial.

Bahamian Attorney General Sean McWeeney says that his government is working on many of the problems.

"We introduced state-of-the-art computer-integrated reporting systems in the Supreme Court in 1989," he said, adding that they should be in the magistrates' courts early next year.

Mr. McWeeney said that his office will also propose a plea-bargain system. "But there's very strong public resistance. People see it as coddling criminals," he said.

One of the system's chief critics is Frederick Smith, a Bahamian defense attorney and human rights activist who recently filed suit against the attorney general's office on behalf of two Fox Hill prisoners.

"We became independent [of Britain] in 1973," Mr. Smith said, "but we continue to use a system designed for a small colony."

The lack of free attorneys for indigent defendants is one of the most serious problems, Mr. Smith said. "So many people go unrepresented, and their rights are abused."

Although Mr. McWeeney acknowledged lack of representation in less serious cases, he said, "With drug cases, very few are without counsel." That accounts for most of the Americans being held at Fox Hill.

Mr. McWeeney acknowledged that non-Bahamian drug defendants are denied bail as a matter of policy.

"The principle is whether there is a probability that the defendant will abscond," he said. "It's probably greater if he doesn't live in the Bahamas. If a prisoner can establish that he has been held for an unduly long period of time, he can be discharged on bail, despite the other criteria. But there is no specific time frame. And what might be reasonable in the U.S. might be different here."

Asked about trials taking two years or longer, he said:

"That has been known to happen, unfortunately. . . . The coordination between the nine magistrates' courts is not the best. Some of them are overburdened with cases, while others don't have a full plate of work. We're appointing a chief magistrate to coordinate things, with particular emphasis on not letting trials take too long."

Part of the problem, Mr. Smith said, is that magistrates work only when they feel like it.

"Today, maybe, they'll work from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., then from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. And if I get two hours today, the next available date might be in February of next year. We have nobody to press the judges to work. We have no accountability," he said.

"It has been a problem, unfortunately," the attorney general said. "The magistrates tend to see themselves as independent fiefdoms."

There are 70 to 90 American men at Fox Hill, inmates' families estimate. A letter smuggled out of Fox Hill in June said: "Most of us . . . have not even been found guilty of any offense."

Lori Rosichan, 21, a psychology major at Miami-Dade Community College, spent eight months at Fox Hill in 1988 before she was acquitted of a drug-smuggling charge.

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