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Judge asks to recuse self over ‘threat’ text
Alleged improper communication between prosecutors and a magistrate may derail the preliminary inquiry into the assassination of former Independent Senator Dana Seetahal, SC.
Lawyers representing some of the 10 men charged with the crime yesterday made an application calling for Senior Magistrate Indrani Cedeno to recuse herself from the case, which she has been presiding over since 2016.
In the application, which was obtained by the T&T Guardian, the group’s lawyer Criston J Williams explained that the improper communication was revealed to him and other defence attorneys during a chamber court hearing before Cedeno on June 1.
Williams said at the meeting they were informed that there was communication between the prosecution and Cedeno in November last year and in May.
“This ex-parte unilateral communication caused Magistrate Cedeno to have heightened sense of fear as she perceived the nature of the communication received subjectively and subsequently made a formal application for ‘increased security’,” Williams said.
Williams alleged that the communication related to a series of violent threats made in series of Whatsapp messages. The messages, which do not directly refer to Cedeno or the case, were attached to the application.
In the application, Williams suggested that the communication and the failure of Cedeno to disclose it within a reasonable time was improper.
“It is fundamentally flawed and unbecoming of the prosecution led by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and begs the question of prosecutorial conduct in the circumstances,” Williams said.
He also suggested that her conduct may make a fair-minded observer question whether she would be biased against the accused men.
“In the instantaneous case at the bar, it shall be difficult to persuade the hypothetical observer that the magistrate has or may have the ability to dismiss from her mind her perceived subjective threat in making of her decisions,” Williams said.
In the event that Cedeno agrees to recuse herself, it would mean that the preliminary inquiry, which is already at an advanced stage, would have to be restarted before a new magistrate. This would further delay the case, as prosecutors will have to re-tender the 50 witness statements that have already been put into evidence. The ten witnesses who have already given evidence before Cedeno will also have to take the witness stand a second time and be cross-examined by defence attorneys. It will also have a ripple effect on other unrelated cases in the Port-of-Spain Magistrates’ Court, as most magistrates do not schedule hearings of their cases when the high-profile case is listed due to heightened security measures implemented for it.
Cedeno only took control of the case in 2016, after former chief magistrate Marcia Ayers-Caesar recused herself from the case after it was revealed some police officers in her security detail had assisted in investigating Seetahal’s murder. However, Ayers-Caesar’s recusal did not totally derail the inquiry as the State had not begun to lead evidence when it occurred.
The application is expected to be considered when the case comes up for hearing before Cedeno, next Wednesday.
ABOUT THE CASE
The issue is the second alleged blunder by the prosecution team since reputed gang leader Rajaee Ali and 13 alleged associates were charged with the crime, a year after Seetahal was murdered on May 4, 2014.
Seetahal was shot dead behind the wheel of her SUV while driving along Hamilton Holder Street, Woodbrook.
Ali, his brothers Ishmael and Hamid Ali; Devaughn Cummings, Ricardo Stewart, Earl Richards, Stephan Cummings, Kevin Parkinson, Leston Gonzales; Roget Boucher and Gareth Wiseman were initially charged with the crime.
They, along with Rajaee’s wife Stacy Griffith, Deon Peters and David Ector, were also charged under the Anti-Gang Act for being members of a gang.
In 2016, the DDP’s Office applied to amend the gang charges due to an administrative error made when they were laid on the group.
Cedeno dismissed it as she ruled that the time for making the amendment had expired. Peters and Ector were set free, while Griffith remained as she was charged with an unrelated gang offence that was not affected by the blunder.
Cedeno’s decision on that issue is being challenged in the Court of Appeal next week.
In December last year, the murder charge was discontinued against Stephan Cummings, who was instead charged with conspiring to murder Seetahal.
Ector was murdered earlier this week.
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