The Queen v Desmond Trotter and Roy Mason
On Carnival Tuesday, February 24th, 1974, a regular visitor to Dominica from the United states, a white male, 62-year-old, John Jirasek was allegedly shot in the stomach. The male who was in the vicinity of Fort Young Hotel, a restored British fortress; the Cenotaph, an obelisks where the nation’s fallen during the two world wars are remembered, and Peebles Park a picturesque recreational park hanging dangerously over the cliff looking out to the sombre Caribbean sea. #The editor of the Dominica Labour Party, newsletter, The Educator, Eustace Francis writing in the Wednesday March 6th, 1974 edition, in an editorial entitled, “The Tomb of the friendly visitor”, remarked that Jirasek was believed to be the victim of a ‘racist crime’ Choosing his words carefully, Francis wrote, “ The much regretted incident has brought a new awakening to the realities of a nurturing trend of violence, for which there may be many who must share the blame, and the consciousness which it has provoked and stimulated. Francis continued to call on his readers to “command the responsibility of all citizens to maintain the standards of civilised existence, necessary to preserve the stability of the state.” Francis ended his piece by suggesting that a tomb be erected in the vicinity of the cenotaph in memory of John Jirasek, who died from his gunshot wound at the Princess Margaret Hospital later that fateful evening. “ …and so that he may not die in vain, it may be worthwhile to pay tribute to his memory by erecting a tomb nearby, in memory of the friendly visitor. It would be a monument to bear witness of our profound belief in the brotherhood of man, and of our utter rejection of the cult of racism,” Francis concluded.
Who ever the assassin was, the government was determine to pin the responsibility on leaders of the Movement for a New Dominica (MND) who they viewed as #“Mulattoes masquerading as black Power with a sinister plot to return the mulatto to power in Dominica.” Several weeks later, on May 5th, 1974, two young militant black power advocates were eventually picked up for questioning and charged with murder. The fair-skinned, Desmond Trotter, a 20 year-old, civil servant employed as a votes clerk at the police headquarters, and black-skinned, 22-year-old, Roy Mason a close companion and former St. Mary Academy school mate. Trotter and Mason were both active in the ( MND) Trotter was the editor of several newsletters including ‘Manicou Movements’ and Twavay. Newsletters that critiqued the status quo severely. Both wore dreadlocks.
Desmond Trotter, who is now known by his African/ Rastafarian name, Ras Kabinda, speaking to this author via telephone in 2009 related to me the events leading up to his arrest and subsequent charge for the murder Jirasek on May 5th, 1974. Ras Kabinda who vehemently maintained his innocence through out the trial and subsequent conviction, mentioned the moment when the police claimed that a gun was found in his possession.
#I was on a movements on the road walking with some of the other man them. Remember Doctrove and some of the younger brothers and we were going on a movement and certain things happen then. Somebody put a, plant a weapon in the bucket that I was carrying. The bucket I was carrying, is either that or somebody took my bucket that I was carrying with little food and we say we going up in the mountain for a time and chill, and when we reach at Fond Cole, we stayed there to go check an elder man. So when we reach there we ask every man what is their position, if they have any weapon, and thing like that. Because it don’t make sense to carry thing like that because is on the road we are walk, and you know how #Babylon is, so just keep calm, and everybody say they clean. So when we leave to walk together and when reach a certain distance we see the Babylon pass us, so I leave to go up the mountain track to just walk a little faster and avoid the main road. So when I see nobody doh come yet I stand up and wait for them. While I waiting on them, I just see the Babylon vehicle come up on I. And when they come up on I, they say they want to search me. So I said no problem. All I have in my bag is clothes, but when them search in the bucket them find a weapon, .32 revolver. I don’t know up to this day how this weapon get into that, you understand. I have no idea of that weapon at all. And is that what they use, because they get now, and they show me in front of me they get a weapon in the bucket I was carrying. They used that the as pretence that it must be the weapon that shoot the white man, and they just put that together and start to frame it around me.”
The trial, The Queen versus Desmond Trotter and Roy Mason opened at the High court in Roseau, Dominica on August 20th, 1974. The pair were jointly charged with the murder of John Jirasek. The defence counsel would be radical Grenadian, lawyer and member of the New Jewel Movement, Maurice Bishop, assisted by Dominica’s, Brian Alleyne and the case would become one of the most celebrated trials in the Caribbean. #Author, Philip Melton White would later summarize the Desmond Trotter affair in his account of the trial as ‘The case of the century.’
#The prosecution’s star witness was an 18 year-old, Antiguan woman, Camilla Francis, who like John Jirasek, was visiting Dominica for the Carnival festivities which have been an integral part of Dominica’s cultural heritage since the abolition of slavery in 1834. She arrived by boat at Portsmouth on February 22nd with a friend, one, Hyacinth Francis, and stayed with friends in Marigot. Francis it was who identified Trotter in a line up of suspects at the Police station at the bequest of sergeant Gene Pestina. Desmond Trotter was the fourth in a line of young men. She asked Trotter to smile, which he did reluctantly showing a #“missing tooth in the upper jaw’’ Francis swore that she had heard Trotter say that he had killed a white man while she was on the corner of Queen Mary Street and River Street. Ras Kabinda reflecting in our telephone interview said, “Them get this Antiguan woman, whom I never know in my life, never see in me life. The police them force her… she had overstay in Dominica, and the police force her to come say that she heard me say at carnival, talking to Roy or somebody like that that I just do a good job, I shoot a white man, kind a talk like that. And that is how the frame up really come about.”
Roy Mason was identified as a suspect by another prosecution witness, an employee of Cable and Wireless, #Ericson Philogene who told the court that Mason was seen “running away from an area of the bay front after he heard a gun shot about 10: 20pm. “ Philogene was allegedly with his girl friend on the bay front when according to him, Mason almost knocked over his girl friend as he rushed past them.
Ras Kabinda’s eldest brother, Engineer, Vivian Trotter, who was studying at the St Augustine campus in of the University of the West Indies in Trinidad at that time of these events, in a similar telephone interview, expressed the initial shock of hearing of the alleged implication of Destrot with the murder of the American.
#“Yeah! That was a great shock! Kabinda was not a man to be involved in anything like that. So it was a great shock. But he denied it extensively. Babylon, you know, certain individual authorities would go for political… you know,… power!. They saw him as a political threat, and tried to just make up this issue to raise the idea that Dread was terrible, and that this organisation was a terrible organisation. That they were killing people, and taking people land All kind of nonsense…So actually, Miss Charles was a big opponent for the Dread Act and Patrick John himself. The whole society was in, by and large, hysteria, you know, encourage by those politicians. So they say him [Kabinda] as a symbol of that. So they tried to silence him. He had his newspaper pushing his philosophy as well highlighting certain issues at hand.”
FREE DESMOND NOW
Protests for the release of Desmond Trotter followed his conviction from local, regional and international sources. A group calling themselves The #Trotter Legal Defence Committee viewed his case as “a case study in relation to human rights in the Caribbean.” The committee comprised of Dominican lawyer, Brian Alleyne; from Barbados Harley Mosely and R.L. Clark; Christopher Blackman of the Caribbean Bar Association, Miles Fitzpatrick from Guyana, Allan Alexander of Trinidad and Morris Bishop of Grenada.
Strong condemnation of the conviction came from Trinidad and Tobago in the form of a message from Catholic Arch Bishop, Anthony Pantin of the Roman Catholic; Bishop Clive Abdullah of the Anglican church and Reverend Derryk Lyder, Superintendent of the Methodist Church. In a cable to Governor Sir Louis Cools Latique and Premier Patrick John the religious leaders appealed to the authorities to ensure that #Desmond Trotter was not hanged for the crime of murder of which he had been found guilty. Assistant General Secretary of the Caribbean Conference of Churches (CCC), and Director of the Agency of the Renewal of the Churches, Roman Catholic priest, Father Kelvin Francis put his appeal this way to Governor Latique “In the name of the Caribbean peoples who I have the pleasure of representing. I humbly beg you to exercise your constitutional powers in ensuring that the life of Desmond trotter is spared from the gallows.” #In an equally strong appeal, Felix wrote to Premier John pleading, “ whatever may have been the problems that eventually led to the distressing decision of the privy council we hope that in the present climate of Dominica and given your own expressed concern for the youth, that Desmond’s life can be spared.” The protests and condemnation also came in the form of petitions asking for clemency for Desmond Trotter. On Tuesday March 23, 1974, the name and signatures of eight thousand individuals were presented to Mr. Isaiah Thomas, Chairman of the Committee on Mercy. Louis Benoit, Curtis Augustus and Elijah John of the Waterfront and Allied Workers Union (WAWU) added their voice and concern stating, #“WE of the Waterfront and Allied Workers Union are deeply concerned about the life of young Desmond Trotter. We feel that his [force] should not be silenced.” Representatives of the St Mary’s Academy Congregation of Christian Brothers, Dr. Phillip Boyd, Mr. A Matthew, Mr. S Lestrade and Dr. J. Bardouille, and the students of the Saint Mary’s Academy (SMA) wrote to the Minister of Home Affairs, “WE the undersigned staff and students are concerned about the fate of Desmond Trotter, a former student of our school. Since there is the possibility of Desmond’s innocence“. A group calling themselves simply, Dominicans in Guyana in a similar cable to the Governor, the Premiere and the Minister of Home Affairs wrote, #“After due consideration of all the circumstances including the very heavy possibility of innocence, we want to extend the support [to] the Waterfront and Allied Workers Union to the widespread call for clemency for [our] young brother Desmond Trotter. Still another commentator wrote in the New Chronicle, that the Desmond Trotter affair was one that was “deeply rooted in humanism and Christian understanding Desmond Trotter he said, “had developed an ethnic philosophy which was in direct response to our ailing society.”
DESMOND TROTTER IN JAIL
Desmond Trotter was incarcerated at Her Majesty’s Prison at Stock Farm, Goodwill, and was held in the maximum security wing of the prison, simply called by prison inmates as ‘the block’. At the time of his arrest, Desmond was suffering with #“severe burnings on his left leg.” Despite the advice of a certain Dr. Shillingford who after examination was of the opinion that if the limb went untreated it could turn septic, and who cautioned the authorities that the young militant should be held at the Princess Margaret Hospital. The Committee in Defence of Desmond Trotter and Political Prisoners in Dominica in its May 26th, 1976 edition published in an article entitled, #‘DESMOND IS SLOWLY BEING KILLED’ according to the piece, “ …the leg has tried to heal without sunlight, without proper food, without proper medical care, without proper exercise, and most of all under the worst hygiene conditions on can imagine: constant smell from shit and urine pails which are kept in the same place prisoners sleep; constant dampness because prisoners bathe in that same place; excessive mid-day heat; plenty of mosquitoes and other biting insects.”
Maximum security inmates were normally kept under lock and key for 23 hours, with one hour for exercise and hosing down by prison officers. According to the committee, prison regulations stated that, “ no prisoner should be kept more than 28 days in the block, but Trotter since his arrest up until that time had spent what they termed a ‘barbaric’ 2 full years in that condition. The committee accused the John administration of trying to kill Trotter from the day he was arrested as was evidenced by the Premier and Minister of Home Affairs refusal to allow the prison regulation of at least the minimum amount of one hour sunlight daily. # Trotter who had suffered with bronchitis since a child at the time of the shooting of John Jirasek in Roseau was suffering with bronchial pneumonia at his home in Great Malborough street. Trotter speaking to this author in 2009 related the build up of events in this extract of a telephone interview I conducted with him in which he speaks of injury to his leg, which is still problematic for him.# “That was in…remember them arrest me… I go in jail in 1974. My case was in November I think. Sometime in March April May or one of them time there, what happen, my foot had get burned. And after the foot got burned then after this thing happened over the carnival. It was a carnival period this man got shot and during that time there, I was sick also I had fever, I used to suffer from bronchitis. At that time, I used to work in the police station, you overstand. I used to be the votes clerk in the traffic department I was the man receiving all money for licenses and things like that, and at that time I was on sick leave during the carnival period when that man got shot. I was in my yard, [home] at that time I was sick. Remember I told you that my foot had get burned. So after the foot got burned…the thing happened over the carnival time. At the time I was sick at my home from bronchitis and them thing, and a little time after that the foot got burned, and thing like that and while my foot was burned, while I was in my house that is when they come and arrest I thing like that. At first they had pick up my elder brother[ Garner Trotter] and Roy [Mason], and thing like that.”
The Committee in Defence of Desmond Trotter and political prisoners in Dominica asked its readers in the may 29th, 1976 edition of its publication For Justice and Political Freedom publication, “ When will the masses see that Desmond, Algi Maffie and the rest are supposed to die in jail because the decided to fight against capitalism for a better Dominica? When will the people of Dominica see that they must stand up now for those who stood up for them and demand justice? Ras Kabinda in his own words described to me in more detail some of the conditions he endured while on death row.
#RAS ALBERT WILLIAMS
Okay…erm.. So what were your experiences up in the prison like after you er..
RAS KABINDA HABRE SELLASSIE
In the prison? In the prison? Oh! The prison come like the middle passage, man! You have no rights, man. Every day them attempting to kill you! The amount of attempts them make on our life on my life in the prison is amazing, man!…They try poison us so many times…
RAS ALBERT WILLIAMS
RAS KABINDA HABRE SELLASSIE
Well…they would just try to lick you down. You have to be like gladiators inside the prison..
RAS ALBERT WILLIAMS
RAS KABINDA HABRE SELLASSIE
Otherwise they would just try to lance upon you and lick you down. And I tell you Mwata I tell you is a rebel man in the struggle. Mwata save a lot of life in the jail through at that time he used to be working in the jail.. Every time they try to exercise certain violence and wickedness upon I and I in and Mwata had to personally come and stand up for I and I. Him save a lot of us in jail, mi ah tell you dread! He see the brutality that they try to …especially one they call skill, and an officer they call Skill, and another one they call Harris. Them was Patrick John main man. Them man was the most wickedest man upon earth. And at the same time when you see your brethren bring fruits endless fruits and thing for you, they would take all your fruits and hold it in their own locker. At one time I stayed about 48 days without any food. Them try to poison us give I some kind of thing to eat and when I eat it ah tell you all my throat would just eat out and mash up, man.
RAS ALBERT WILLIAMS
RAS KABINDA HABRE SELLASSIE
Wah was the main man with I in the jail in them time there, you overs? Wah is the man I make most of the time with in the prison. He is a brother I owe mi life to. Him one of the man dem that really protect I in the jail. Two of us make the five years in the security block until both of us escape together.
RAS ALBERT WILLIAMS
RAS KABINDA HABRE SELLASSIE
Him that preserve I, you know, a lot in the jail. Another tough brother they call Desmond, I don’t know if you remember Desmond, he was big tough brother. He was a Howlings at the time.
An appeal by Trotter’s lawyers to the Associated States Court of Appeals at the High Court On Thursday February 13th, 1975 was unsuccessful. Presenting the appeal was prominent lawyer, Elliot Mottly of Barbados backed up by Brian Alleyne of Dominica.