Guilty! : How the Kartel Trial Shamed A Nation
After deliberating for just under two hours, the 11 member jury returned its verdict. The three men and eight women found Adijah Palmer, and three of his four co-accused, guilty of the murder of Clive “Lizard” Williams. The verdict has put to rest a legal drama that began in 2011, one which fascinated and mystified the nation, but there were more sinister undercurrents at play here. As much as my own conscience tells me justice has been done, and as much as I would rather not see any selfless heroism in a convicted murderer; I am unable to shake the feeling that in the end Vybz Kartel was able to serve as a living testament, a sacrificial lamb of sorts, for many of the realities dancehall music has explored over the years. Kartel’s arrest, trial and conviction put the very state on trial, and on nearly all counts, Jamaica was found guilty.
Many of Jamaica’s chronic problems, particularly our structural and socio-economic challenges, were forcefully brought to bear over the 65 days that Kartel stood on trial. In many ways the proverbial mirror was held to our collective faces and we were invited to confront a society in ruins, and a country dangerously close to failed state status. The massive throng of “Gazaites” that descended on the Supreme Court, in the middle of the work week, was more than just a base of support for the embattled entertainer. Rather, it was the harsh reflection of a country struggling with a massive unemployment crisis. Those fans were symptomatic of the 15% of the population who have such precious little to do that banding together as a chorus with shouts of “Free Kartel” and “No Teacha, No School” was a legitimate use of their time and productive energies. As the security forces struggled to restrain the maraudering masses, the imagery was striking. We were witnessing the state and its agents struggle, and in one instance, fail to control runaway unemployment; and even worse, the anxieties and frustrations that necessarily come with it. Kartel, of course, had highlighted this reality; for him, it was an emergency. He saw suffering and earnestly questioned the nation’s leaders for answers and solutions on behalf of his constituents, on behalf of his loyal fans. How ironic, then, that his trial should put on display, for all the world to see, the real emergency Jamaica faces where unemployment is concerned. On count one, Jamaica was found guilty of negligence and economic instability.
Even more shocking than the display of rampant unemployment was the blow this trial did to the legitimacy of the justice system in the eyes of the masses. For many, myself included, our cultural prejudices could reach no other verdict in the Kartel matter but guilty. However for many, indeed for most, it was never that simple. It was a matter of the system vs. the poor. Perhaps no one was more aware of this reality than Kartel’s lead defence attorney, Tom Taveres-Finson. Mr. Finson crafted an entire strategy grounded on the idea that the police cannot be trusted, and a conspiracy existed against Kartel because of who he is. Mr. Finson manipulated a most basic sentiment among the masses of our population, the idea that “di system corrupt.” Finson’s strategy was never for those of us who wanted Kartel gone, it was for those who have an abiding distrust in the state’s law enforcement apparatus. For so many their doubt was reasonable enough – there was no legitimacy, there is no justice. While the jury may have avoided the bait, the masses who looked on took it hook, line and sinker. Many observers saw nothing more than a system which conspired and colluded to put a “ghetto yute” behind bars. In their eyes, there was no justice, but rather there was a chronic failure of justice, a bias against the poor. Undoubtedly, this sets back confidence in the constabulary force and the criminal justice system ten fold. The allegations of evidence tampering may have cemented in the minds of inner city youth the legends of police planting evidence, the stories of extra-judicial killings bolstered and legitimized by planting guns on dead men. For those who already disliked and distrusted the security forces, the claims of shoddy policing in this case was the clearest evidence yet that their fears and distrust had been justified. So while we all celebrate a triumph for the prosecution, let us be mindful that Jamaica may have won the battle, but as a country we lost the war. On count two, Jamaica was found guilty of the absence of a credible justice system, certainly in the minds of the masses.
Finally, there was a certain callous disregard for human life. As a society, we were collectively tried and found wanting for several reasons. Firstly, I admit myself disappointed that in the unfolding media coverage and hype surrounding this trial, the victim, Clive Williams, was all but forgotten. When the media did mention the man who was allegedly “chop up fine fine fine”, it was with disregard and in passing. It is disappointing to me that what should have been a trial in search of justice for Williams, became the Kartel show; it had less to do with the brutal death of a man, and more to do with the infamy of Vybz Kartel. As a society, we were almost willing to free Kartel, in spite of Clive Williams. Our selfish need to consume violent lyrics and degrading references to women took precedence over a man’s life. We ought to be ashamed. Kartel’s trial betrayed the ever declining value we place on human life in this country. For many Jamaicans, it was okay to disregard Lizard, because “he was no angel”, but for me it was never about Lizard’s character, it was about the fact that murder, no matter the victim, must never be treated with callous disregard. On count three, the value we place on human life, we were found wanting. Have we become so immune to violence that life means nothing? You can decide our innocence or guilt as a nation.
In the final analysis, Adijah Palmer has served a greater purpose than he may have realized. While he perhaps only sees the fact that he is facing 25 years to life, he can take solace in the fact that he presented, by way of his trial, evidence that his art did reflect life, it reflected Jamaican life. Whether our leaders will treat decisively with these issues is to be seen; but while we wait, let us be mindful that Kartel wasn’t the only one found guilty, our country, the entire state is guilty, in some way shape or form.