TORONTO, CANADA — Grenada’s top prosecutor says manslaughter charges have been quashed against five police officers accused of beating a Canadian visitor to death there more than a year ago.
Christopher Nelson, the Caribbean country’s Director of Prosecutions, says a judge ruled Friday that a coroner’s inquest must be held before the criminal case can proceed.
But he says the charges can be brought back if evidence presented at the inquest suggests they are warranted.
The officers are accused of beating Oscar Bartholomew, 39, into a fatal coma on Boxing Day 2011 while he was in a cell in the hamlet of St. David’s.
Relatives said the altercation occurred after he bear-hugged a plainclothes policewoman he had mistaken for a friend and she yelled, “Rape!”
Bartholomew lived in Toronto but was in his native Grenada to visit family with his wife of 10 years, Dolette Cyr, of Cascapedia-St. Jules, Que.
The Coroner’s Act mandates an inquest when someone dies in a public facility, such as a prison, but Nelson says he believes it’s the first time the act has taken precedence over criminal proceedings.
“There is no precedent so far as I am aware, certainly not in Grenada,” he said in a phone interview Saturday.
“My view is… the coroner’s inquest cannot take precedence over the decision of the prosecuting authorities to lay charges when they think it is possible to do so,” he said.
“My view is at least they can both run parallel.”
Unlike inquests in Canada, those in Grenada can return a verdict of murder or manslaughter, leading to criminal charges.
“The result can be the same but the difference is that with the coroner’s inquest, it’s the coroner in the driving seat of the process,” he said.
“The difference is in the coroner’s inquest there are no charges, there are no accused persons, it’s just a fact-finding inquiry.”
Nelson said his office has yet to see the judge’s written decision and will decide whether to appeal after reading the document.
But he said an appeal is likely and could bring a stay of the order quashing the charges.
The officers, who were suspended with half pay after the December 2011 incident, will return to work with the Royal Grenada Police Force and be reimbursed for their lost salaries, said Anselm Clouden, a lawyer for one of them.
“They are no longer charged with anything until the coroner can inquire into the proper cause of death,” he said from his office in St. George, Grenada’s capital.
On Friday, the High Court accepted the defence’s argument the coroner was legally bound to hold an inquest before a trial could proceed, because Bartholomew died in a public building, said Clouden.
“That is unbelievable, absolutely disgusting,” said Liz Brown, a friend of Bartholomew’s for the last three years of his life. “His parents must be just reeling.”
Derick Sylvester, the lawyer representing Bartholomew’s family, called the development a “short-term victory” for the accused officers, arguing that a five-member jury at a coroner’s inquest could ultimately recommend more serious charges than manslaughter.
“With the level of publicity that this case had, in a country of 110,000, it’s not looking good for them,” said Sylvester. “The evidence is so damning.”
Sylvester also said he believes the court’s decision sets a “dangerous precedent,” by allowing the Coroner’s Act – which mandates an inquiry for all deaths that occur in a public building, like a prison – to supersede the authority of the district prosecutor, who laid the charges in Bartholomew’s case.
“They have opened up a legal can of worms that will have to be taken care of,” said Sylvester.
More than a year after Bartholomew’s death, his family is still no closer to getting answers about what happened. And they will have to keep waiting.
“I was watching the news and then saw the ruling,” Anthony Bartholomew, 49, the victim’s brother, said Saturday in a telephone interview. “I don’t know what to say. We have no answers. We haven’t heard anything from (our lawyer). There is no justice.”