Beyond reasonable doubt and police accountability

Michaela MacAreavey murder trial

By Sean Carey

“Beyond reasonable doubt” is always a good place to start when assessing guilt, especially when those accused are faced with the prospect of 60 years in prison. So it didn’t come as a huge surprise when two hotel workers, Sandip Moonea, 43, and Avinash Treebhoowoon, 32, were acquitted of the murder of Irish honeymooner Michaela MacAreavey in Mauritius last week.

The 27-year-old Irish language teacher and former Rose of Tralee contestant, the only daughter of legendary Tyrone Gaelic football manager Mickey Harte, was staying with her husband John at the 5-star Legends resort at Grand Gaube, when she was brutally murdered on 10 January 2011, after disturbing an intruder when she returned to the honeymoon suite after lunch to find a dark chocolate KitKat.

But it was clear to anyone hearing the evidence emerging from courtroom 5 of the Supreme Court in Port Louis that it would be very difficult for the jury – six men and three women – to deliver a guilty verdict on either of those charged. There were too many loose ends that just could not be tied up satisfactorily –in particular, Treebhoowoon’s claim that he had only confessed to the murder after he had been beaten by officers of the Major Crime Investigation Team. This accusation, which had never been convincingly refuted, seriously undermined the state prosecutor Mehdi Manrakhan’s case.

After I wrote an article a few weeks ago for The Independent in the UK, sketching some details of the social and cultural context in which the trial was taking place, I was contacted by a number of Irish news organisations, keen to make some sense of an event taking place in a “paradise island” located on the other side of the Equator. There Irish and British journalists were describing what was going on inside and outside the courtroom as “chaotic” and “a fiasco”, mainly because events did not conform to what is familiar in cases heard in Cork, Limerick or London.

I suggested that the comparison about the way the trial is being conducted in Mauritius was not between “order” and “chaos”, but between “formality” and “informality”. Seen from this perspective, legal processes in Europe and North America are peculiarly attached to formality. But Mauritius is not Europe or North America, so other rules apply, many of which reflect the local culture. That doesn’t make the legal system inferior, merely different.

Lawyers in Mauritius, I also explained, are as good as anywhere in the world. In fact, a case could be made that in some ways they are sometimes better than their colleagues in Europe and North America, not because they are more intelligent, but because they are obliged to be competent in two legal systems, French civil law and English common law. Juggling two systems often provides insights and perspectives that possessing expertise in one simply doesn’t allow.

Additionally, in order to explain some of the “chaos” in the courtroom, I noted that while barristers are generally recruited from middle and upper middle-class families, the same cannot be said of the vast majority of members of the police service in Mauritius, who tend to come from “respectable” but lower socio-economic groups. For sure, the police officers involved in the MacAreavey case would not have benefited from an extended further education in Europe and North America that many Mauritian barristers have had. It is relatively easy for sophisticated, cosmopolitan lawyers to get one up on locally educated, low-ranking and even high-ranking police officers — which is exactly what happened on occasion in the MacAreavey trial.

But even while the global spotlight has been turned on the Supreme Court in Port Louis the big point to make is that expectations about what constitutes “guilt” have been transformed throughout the world in recent years by advances in DNA testing. Mauritius is no exception. Without the sort of ‘hard’ evidence from DNA (or CCTV), eyewitness statements and circumstantial evidence against the two accused are relatively easily taken apart by competent defence barristers.

There is a further point. The police in Mauritius have not been subjected to the same sort of criticism and scrutiny about the way they conduct operations, that has taken place, say, in the UK over the last two decades. The murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in south-east London in 1993, followed by Sir William Macpherson’s enquiry into subsequent events, led to wholesale changes in relation to policing, race relations and the law, which are still reverberating today.

The Macpherson Report famously called London’s Metropolitan Police Service “institutionally racist”, by which was meant the “collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin.” Sir William also recommended that the 800-year-old double jeopardy rule should be set aside in murder cases to allow retrials whenever new and compelling evidence arose. This became law in 2005, and data recovered through advances in DNA testing ultimately led to the conviction of two of Stephen Lawrence’s murderers in January 2012.

In Northern Ireland, another part of the United Kingdom, such was the distrust of the Royal Ulster Constabulary amongst Roman Catholics, that it was given a new name, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in 2001. Since then, 26 Roman Catholic men and women found guilty of terrorism offences during the ‘Troubles’, who claimed that their confessions were beaten out of them by the police, have had their convictions quashed. Another 65 cases are still waiting to be heard. In only four cases have the convictions been upheld.

The general lesson about policing anywhere in the world is that where you have groups of men and women in uniform operating on the streets and behind closed doors, and to whom the state has given considerable amounts of power, then, unless there is a high level of transparency and accountability, there will be a suspicion at least among some subsets of the population that the police are behaving dishonourably.

In the UK, the Home Office insists that all 43 police forces in England and Wales collect data on customer satisfaction levels from people who have been the victims of crime. The research is carried out by an independent agency using telephone interviews, and it throws up interesting statistical patterns, including discrepancies in satisfaction between different segments of the community – for example, differences in satisfaction between white and ethnic minority groups – which the police are obliged to investigate. Yes, I suppose it does lead to an additional layer of bureaucracy, but better to have that than groups of disgruntled citizens, who are suspicious of the police, or worse hold them in contempt.

Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton

* Published in print edition on 20 July 2012

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