Michaela Harte Murder Case
In the late evening of July 12 came the verdict from the Jury: ‘Not Guilty’. The case brought by Police against two former employees of the Legends Hotel for involvement in the murder on 10 January 2011, of Michaela Harte in her hotel room came to an end on this note.
As expected, reactions were mixed, depending on which side of the case this verdict is looked from. While there was relief on the side of those who had been kept in custody under the charge for the past 18 months, the Harte and McAreavey families of Ireland to which the victim belonged, looked utterly devastated at this outcome. For the latter, the legal process ended up giving nothing to hold on to in answer to their lookout for justice for the loss of Michaela who was on honeymoon here with her bridegroom John McAreavey.
While some have focused, in Mauritius and Ireland, on the economics of this case, in terms of Mauritius’ potential loss of attraction from a touristic point of view, the greater concern in Mauritius has been about a case of crime going unpunished. All along, there was in the heart of the Mauritian public not a quest for market, but one for justice. Not for retaliation of any sort but rather for giving relief to the families of the bereaved. It was hoped that the case would give rise to an exemplary punishment for whoever was really guilty of this odious crime. The crime had sullied our standing as a hospitable people and it was important to remove this scar on our reputation. People were expecting that this affront to our sense of responsibility would be vindicated by following due process of law. The unanimous verdict handed down by the jury after the prosecution and defence teams had presented their presentations, did not live up to this expectation.
An unpunished crime is revolting in any case. This is the general feeling that has been travelling in the minds of all over here since the verdict was delivered by the Jury. It appears that the prosecution has relied heavily or almost entirely on confessions obtained from the two accused without adequate and irrefutable independent evidential corroboration by way of forensics or otherwise. There was not even gathering of video evidence to prove to the court that the confessions were actually obtained in the presence of the defendants’ barristers and not under duress. The accused claimed that they would actually have made the confessions under pressure and in face of Police brutality against them.
It has been the case that accused have oftentimes had recourse to this line of defence in other cases when they were pushed against the wall. This was the line actually adopted by the defence team before members of the jury in the present high profile case. They kept up their point that the Police may have employed harsh physical tactics to get the confessions by force from the accused. Defence lawyers must have relied on the long-distilled alleged past track record of the investigating body in this respect to convince members of the jury that this would indeed have been the route by which the confessions would have been obtained in the present case as well. It was then left for them to demolish the case of the Police from this angle, while drawing attention to shoddy forensic evidence-gathering by the police, to demonstrate that evidence adduced against the accused was not conclusive, i.e., ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
This strategy may have put the jury into grave doubt that there might be a possible miscarriage of justice whereby innocent people could get punished. Such defence tactics must have undermined, in the eyes of the jury, the credibility of the case brought up by the Police, resulting in the acquittal of the two accused.
Not having even a single culprit for the murder committed is a serious failure to deliver on the results. There is a void. This situation raises more questions than answers. Has the police really failed in its duty? Have the defence lawyers been too smart for the Police by overturning the whole case against them? Has the system of trial by jury inherent weaknesses which allow culprits to get away unscathed, depending on the rhetoric employed by distinct legal teams in front of a lay jury? Were the two persons brought to trial really innocent so that the real killer(s) is on the loose?
People are aghast at this situation where there is no one to answer for a crime committed. Unhappy at this turn of events, the Prime Minister and the DPP are both contemplating to bring further action to bring the perpetrators of the crime to justice. Will the case be reopened? The rule of double-jeopardy means that persons who have been cleared in a trial, cannot be tried once again unless new evidence was brought up. This may be one of the recourses available to the prosecution, although quite risky. The PM has asked for support from Irish Police which, if it materialises, could help bring in new evidence to be able to reopen the case and get a conviction at least.
Beyond these considerations, the trial has shown that the rule of law prevails in Mauritius. There may be some loose ends at the level of the investigation that have been exploited but there has been no interference with the investigation and the independent operation of the judicial system. Preliminary trial referred the case to the Assizes which, in turn, has been guided in its decision by the verdict of the Jury. The same procedures would be followed in any other common law jurisdiction, including Ireland.
No matter due processes of the law, there remains a moral obligation. The moral obligation is to assuage the bruised feelings of all those for whom quest for justice is a fundamental pursuit. This consideration is more important than all else.
In this context, there has been widespread condemnation of the publication of pictures of the victim, last Sunday, corresponding to those that were presented in evidence before the court. There is apparently no legal grounding against such publication although it is morally untenable in the circumstances. This sort of waywardness is not a “way of life” of our local media and can be treated as an exception, an accident de parcours. It serves no real purpose, not least that of reassuring the families of the victim. In the same breath, it defies understanding as to why the director of the paper should be held and maintained under arrest in police custody at the Alcatraz Prison, which is better known for hosting hardened criminals. This is a measure of excess, in our view, the more so since Police have objected to his release on bail.
At the moment, the general feeling here in Mauritius is to help the families of the victim get over the trauma of the sad turn events took in the afternoon of January 10th 2011 in a hotel room in Mauritius. It is very important to help overcome the grief and agony that this tragedy has brought. There is a will to go in this direction and the sooner it is given concrete shape, the better it will be for all.
* Published in print edition on 20 July 2012