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THE MASON VERDICT: Analysis of Justice Moore’s decision

Posted: Tuesday, December 3, 2019. 4:33 pm CST.

 
By Aaron Humes: In the end, Supreme Court Justice Antoinette Moore ruled this morning, there was but one inescapable conclusion from the evidence presented to her in court since March of this year.

Ernest Castillo, Ashton Vanegas, brothers Keiron and Terrence Fernandez, and William “Danny” Mason intentionally, unlawfully and in joint concert murdered Pastor Llewellyn Lucas in July of 2016, without justification for doing so.

With no direct eyewitness to the killing, the prosecution led by Director of Public Prosecutions Cheryl-Lynn Vidal, Senior Counsel, relied mainly upon circumstantial evidence – clothing spattered with drops of blood, DNA testing, video recording of closed-circuit television, text and phone messages and other witness testimony, as well as the actions of the accused.

Taken separately, Justice Moore said, the absence of one of these strands could have arguably weakened the case, but in her view, not enough to safely acquit the five accused. Taken together, however, it was all too much to avoid conviction.

As trier of fact and law, Justice Moore had to make herself sure beyond a reasonable doubt that Lucas was dead; had died by harm; that that harm was not lawfully inflicted and that it was done by the defendants; and that when they did so, their intent was to kill and that they acted together.

Under the concept of “joint enterprise” as such a crime is called, no one defendant has a key role in the commission of the crime; each may act in different roles, such as being a lookout or driver or striking the fatal blow. It is enough to prove that those actions together led to the crime – in this case, murder.

On July 15, 2016, Mason, a self-described businessman dealing in agriculture and livestock among other things called Lucas to his residence to discuss a recent threat to Lucas’ life and in Lucas’s case to borrow money. In his defense, Mason said via unsworn testimony that they had spoken and he, Mason, had not seen him again after leaving his residence for his farm that afternoon.

It was, therefore, a shock, he said, when police caught up with him and the four accused at a bar in Belmopan later that night and demanded to search his vehicle, wherein they discovered the apparently severed head of Lucas in a bucket.

Family members identified Lucas’s head and later DNA testing of his molars done in the United States confirmed the identity.

Forensic examiner Dr. Mario Estradabran established no cause of death in his examination. Therefore, according to Justice Moore, there was nothing presented in evidence to say whether his head was cut off before death or after, or the presence of any other injuries, except that there was no traumatic injury to the head, and there were signs of brain activity before death.

But strictly speaking from a legal standpoint, the court need only know that some harm occurred that led to death, not what that type of harm  it was, Justice Moore explained. Whether the decapitation caused death, or whether there was some injury inflicted on the body and then the head cut off, it was clear Lucas did not die accidentally or by his own hand.

Police were not held off by Mason’s attempts to stop them from searching his truck that night by claiming that they were dropped off and his wife had the keys, or that they did not have lawful authority to conduct a search. That was the start of a rigorous investigation that included seizing digital video recorders containing closed-circuit television footage of activities at the farm, on Mile 31, George Price Highway.

There, Lucas’ companions, David Dodd and one Pastor Wright, were herded into the back of a black pick-up truck and driven a short distance away, then told by Mason to leave and not tell anyone of what they saw. Wright had tried to defend himself and sustained an injury as a result. Lucas was also in the back of the truck as captured on CCTV, and was never seen alive again.

While the video recordings were clear in some spots and poor in others, Justice Moore was satisfied that she could identify all five defendants acting in loading Dodd, Wright, and Lucas under duress into the truck, with Mason at the wheel.

Police secured the men’s clothing on which they had spotted drops of blood, and Scenes of Crime technician Barrington Montero properly secured and prepared the items for processing, which found that the blood matched that of Lucas.

A call from Mason to pastor Richard Smith, who had earlier gone to the farm and waited unsuccessfully for a conference with Mason, was captured. Mason sought Smith’s help in calling off police, which Smith said he had no authority to do.

Justice Moore dismissed Keiron Fernandez’s claim in his unsworn statement that he had never done something like this before and had no serious convictions before the court. She also dismissed Mason’s claim, made when he spoke to U.S. security agent Timothy Reid shortly after the murder, that he was somehow being set up by no less than Minister of National Security John Saldivar, a former business associate.

Justice Moore stated that for instance, there was no point in the video recordings in which anyone but the defendants interacted with Lucas, and therefore no way someone else could have done the killing and decapitation while Mason was looking the other way.

None of Castillo, Vanegas and Terrence Fernandez gave any evidence or called witnesses at trial.

The court has reserved its sentence. DPP Vidal gave no comment as she left the court, but the options are two.

The court could sentence all five to death if the murder is found to be Class A, under the Criminal Code, or if it fits the standard of the “worst of the worst” or “rarest of the rare” established in the 2002 Privy Council case of Patrick Reyes, which also outlawed mandatory death sentences.

If the Crown does not ask for the death penalty, then the sentence is life in prison, recently amended to allow for a limited time spent behind bars before appealing for parole.

 

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