The Value of the Vybz Kartel Trial – Part I
There is so much rich detail in the charges that were brought against Mr. Palmer. So many moving parts: the victims (Who were they?), the defendants (Who are they? How are they connected to each other or to the victims?), the court dates, judges. I am grateful for the page on The Jamaica Gleaner that lists all its articles on Mr. Palmer’s charges. Unfortunately I realized a lot of problems with the reporting. After reviewing over 2 years worth of articles I could almost predict the phrasing and wording of articles; there has obviously been too much copying and pasting and not enough editing or (attention to) detail. I saw inconsistent name spellings, inconsistent facts (e.g., Just how much bail was Mr. Palmer granted for Charge 2, JM$3 million or JM$1 million?). My sense is that this is a general problem. Before my editor forced me to rewrite this post, I built with the premise that the quality of reporting in the matters relating to Mr. Palmer was substandard. After doing the research to come up with the above timeline and to properly refresh my memory about the charges against Mr. Palmer, I retain that premise but I’m expanding my definition of quality to mean not only the kind of reporting being done on the trials but also how the reporting is presented. The poor quality of the former is amplified by the at least equally poor quality of the latter. It’s sloppy. And it need not be; I know that the Gleaner and the Jamaica Observer can do better. I’ve seen them do it. Pressures of The Digital Age notwithstanding, there is no substitute for well-written articles – even short ones about the latest news – that state the facts, get the facts correct, and are grammatically sound. Sure an error or two will slip by; it happens. But I read things from a year ago or more with errors in them, the same kinds of errors that appear in more recent articles. It’s unacceptable.
Someone retweeted onto my timeline recently something like the news media should be focused on reporting in the people’s interest not merely what the people are interested in; the tweeter thought that too much of the latter was happening. I agree.
This trial (for Charge 3) has captured the attention of a lot of Jamaicans. People show up for each of Mr. Palmer’s court appearances, from bail hearings to sessions of this trial. A significant portion of that number of trial watchers are Vybz Kartel fans but others are following the case because, frankly, this is a high-profile landmark case and it’s the first time (that I can remember) a popular person actually going on trial for something and the trial not dragging out over a number of years. Evidence is being presented, the judge is making rulings; it seems that things are moving along. It’s exciting. But more than the unfolding of this case is the characteristic of a large number of people who are following the case. They are people most likely to encounter Jamaica’s criminal justice system. They are the average Jamaican. Too often the average Jamaican’s experience with Jamaica’s criminal justice system is hostile, even deadly. The Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) is viewed with suspicion and contempt. Our courts are viewed as inefficient, burdened, and, I think, unjust. I believe the fancy parlance is that there is a trust deficit. Like him or hate him, Mr. Palmer’s alleged misdeeds have provided us with the opportunity to teach and, perhaps, even to address that trust deficit. Look at that, Mr. Palmer’s troubles offer an opportunity to teach.
I’m wondering why neither the media nor Jamaica’s legal community is grabbing hold of this opportunity. Yes, I’m looking at you The Fourth Estate. Again and always. I still have high expectations for your conduct and content because Jamaica deserves and needs better news coverage than it is getting. I know that newspapers and other media outlets everywhere are struggling to keep up in The Digital Age, but I also know that there is great value in clear, accessible (readability and presentation), rich content that not only reports factually to inform but educates (to, among other things, empower). You don’t have to beat people over the head with legal distinction between “conspiracy” and “accomplice” but I think that it’s fair to expect Jamaica’s media to be doing more with the coverage of these trial. It’s fair to expect the legal community (which would include the judiciary) to proactively engage the Jamaican public to capitalize on this interest. Use it as an opportunity; you have a captive audience – the average Jamaican – that needs the information. Kartel ah “dem” artist but I guarantee you that “they” also identify with him and can either easily imagine themselves in his position or actually relate to his situation by calling upon their own experiences: in custody for over 2 years, no bail, charged with an array of things. It’s David versus Goliath; the underdog versus the big opponent already considered unjust and unfair. Babylon at work, even. The average man versus the Crown; the average man must navigate a system that as under-resourced as it is, is still very able to marshal a lot of resources against whoever is deemed to have damaged society’s fabric in some way. That’s why lawyers are important: to be the interpreter and navigator of that system on his or her client’s behalf. That’s why lawyers are charged with being zealous advocates for their clients; the lawyer knows the system and that the system is meant to represent and protect the society. They must (or, rather, should) defend their clients against it not to bring the system down but to ensure a fair result, to ensure justice (or as just as a result as society has decided is justice).
And, please, don’t even think of suggesting that such detailed commentary or explanation about what’s going on this trial and how it relates to every Jamaica would not be well received by Jamaicans. Don’t even think that such commentary or explanation would not pique the interest of those who are not at all or only engaged in passing. I’ve seen Jamaicans salivate over, discuss, and dissect coverage of the trials and related commentary for: the Trayvon Martin, OJ Simpson, Oscar Pistorius, Casey Anthony, Mark Myrie (aka Buju Banton), and Amanda Knox trials. I’ve seen the many comments on the two years’ worth of articles, indicating not only interest but also plain confusion and blatant ignorance (“only in Jamaican can a murder suspect be granted bail” or “bring jurors in from another jurisdiction” or “why can a sitting Senator represent an accused in Court”). So where are the articles and segments about how evidence is admitted? Where are our articles explaining the very basics of how a trial works, how a case is handled, how a Court functions? Have I missed the explanations on why cross examination of a witness is important and how witness credibility affects what the jury will decide? Any explanations out there of what the prosecution must prove and why, the standard that it must meet, or how the defense can or must rebut? Intuitively many Jamaicans may have an inkling for how these things work but I fear that too much of that inkling is informed either by the aforementioned hostile interactions with the criminal justice system or by watching foreign legal procedurals.
I’ve seen some journalists and lawyers live tweet the trial. Good. But their reporting is necessarily limited by their own interest and availability. There isn’t even a consistent hashtag being used to allow easy curating of (relevant) tweets. Where’s the dedicated live tweeter (perhaps a former court reporter or a law student?) who will deliver dispassionate reporting on what is said from the stand and ruled on from the bench, and who will follow that reporting up with an end-of-the day wrap up and, geez I dunno, Legal Lesson of the Day? Remember “Under the Law”? Perhaps a few legal interns from the very same law schools from which students are showing up at the trial and engaging in Sweetigate. Yes, what about four interns responsible, generally, for covering the Jamaican courts and the legal system. At most these internships could cost a newspaper a transportation stipend and a lunch per diem. The student gets credit and a good entry on the résumé. Put interns on a rotation to cover this trial (it is news) and maybe another trial on a live blog. They can do the daily wrap up too and that Legal Lesson. Altogether that is work product that students’ professors check to ensure (1) at least sufficient participation in the internship by the students, and (2) the ability of the students to adequately understand and explain the law. No time to pass out a damn sweetie.
The law touches every aspect of society; it defines the boundaries for our interactions. Being aware of the law, even if not having an intimate understanding of it is, therefore, important. Remember, ignorance of the law is no excuse.
If you are at all interested in justice then you must be interested in ensuring that the “average man” is aware of his rights and feels empowered to exercise them. That’s the opportunity of this trial and it’s being wasted.