Proven Innocent

The year was 1967. It was a typical Sunday in Georgetown, Guyana, South America. For Donald and Ivan, there was nothing extraordinary about that hot July morning. As customary, they found themselves at their local watering hole, having a drink with friends, less than a hundred yards from their home. Suddenly, a man of East Indian descent walked in the rum shop (bar) with two police officers. Dr. Errol Liverpool
The dreaded question was asked. “Do you see the men who robbed you?”  With little hesitancy, out of the dozen men of African descent who were in the shop that morning, the man pointed to Donald and Ivan as his assailants.  They were handcuffed and carted off to jail, and were arraigned the next day on armed robbery charges.

They had no way of knowing then that Donald was identified by the victim because he was wearing a bandage on his right index finger. Ivan was picked out of this spot lineup simply because he was standing next to his lifelong friend, Donald. The victim had told the police that the person, now identified as Donald, had come up from behind and grabbed him around the neck in a choke hold, while Ivan robbed him of the three hundred dollars he was carrying in his pocket. The victim said that he had bitten the finger of Donald while being choked. The fact that Donald, an avid swimmer, could show that he had cut his finger on a jagged rock while having his weekly swim in the Atlantic Ocean, was of little importance to an overzealous East Indian prosecutor.

Never having been in trouble before . . .  

Donald and Ivan showed their naiveté, by exchanging shirts with other suspects at the official police lineup. They were told by some seasoned convicts, that this was to their advantage. Well, truth be told, when given the opportunity to pick his assailants out of this official police lineup, he was only able to point to Donald, insisting that he was one of the two men who had robbed him. The victim then proceeds to identify another man, and twenty seven year old Ivan was set free.  

In 1967, three hundred dollars in Guyana was equivalent to a year’s wages. Ironically, bail was set for said amount for twenty six year old Donald, who was a high school dropout, and had very limited skilled work experience. At the time of his arrest, he was employed as a laborer by a foreign construction company that had a multimillion dollar contract to repair the dyke that kept the Atlantic Ocean from flooding the city of Georgetown.  He and his wife of seven months were looking toward the future with bright hopes. After spending a little over three weeks in jail, Donald was ecstatic to learn that he was being bonded out by an East Indian neighbor, Lall, who owned a grocery store in the area. Lall, was also Donald’s friend. Not only did this man pay the three hundred dollars cash bond, but he also paid the retainer for the famed local defense attorney, Barrister Fred Wills.

Make no mistake about it. The three weeks in jail did something to Donald emotionally, mentally and physically. He was 5 ft 7, two hundred pounds when he entered the facility. He weighed around 170 pounds upon his release. His skin bore the marks of bed bugs having a party and using his body as their dance floor.  He had to remove the mattress made of coconut fiber from the bed and slept on the springs to get some relief from the bugs. He quietly cried every night and even contemplated suicide. Being out on bond during the trial was a welcomed relief.

The trial lasted approximately four months; a period of great agony and anxiety for this young man. His wife was a registered nurse, and his mother-in-law was not pleased that her daughter had married a man who was a high school dropout. Being charged with such a heinous crime moved the mother-in-law's dislike to disgust, and placed a tremendous strain on the marriage. Compounding matters was the revelation that Donald’s wife was pregnant with their first child. Fortunately, Donald’s wife never doubted her husband’s innocence, because she knew that he had never left their home the Saturday night the victim said he was robbed.

Donald was the youngest of five brothers and two sisters. His oldest sister worked nights and made it her duty to be in court every day. Finally, his wife and his entire family got the words they were waiting for; not guilty!!!!

You, the reader, probably thought this would be a story of a wrongful conviction. But the damage illustrated by this "mere" wrongful prosecution is only amplified when the result is a wrongful conviction.

Now, for the rest of the story.  In 1967, racial tensions ran high between the two dominant races, East Indians (descendants of indentured servants), that accounted for 51 percent of the population, and blacks, (descendants of slaves) that made up 33 percent of the population. That fateful Sunday morning, while having a drink, the men of African descent had no way of knowing that the victim, who had been robbed the night before, had gone into one of two grocery stores, owned and operated by East Indians, and reported that he was robbed by two black men.  In stunned silence, the court heard from the victim how he selected the men that day in the rum shop. He said that the grocery store owner had told him “go into the rum shop and pick out any two black men, a black man is a black man.” Translation; any black man would do. Little did the grocery store owner, Lall, know that his black friend, Donald, would be in the rum shop that day and would be selected. Upon realizing what he had done, Lall then paid the money for Donald’s bond and defense.

It was later revealed that the prosecutor knew from day one just how Donald and Ivan were fingered as the ones who had allegedly perpetrated the crime.  It took the skillful cross examination of the victim by Barrister Fred Wills to bring about this revelation in court. Of course, there is no such thing as malicious prosecution in Guyana!

While this story has a happy ending with Donald’s acquittal, few can fully appreciate the toll this experience took on this young man’s life. Donald, who immigrated to the US with his family two years after this incident, died from a stroke three years ago at the age of seventy one. A few months prior to his death he had revealed to me that while he had a good life, having fathered and raised four children, he was never able to deal with the shame of being charged with such a crime. Yes, Uncle Donald was my mother’s brother and I can give an up close and personal account of this man’s life. In the US, there are those who may not be so lucky to have a good defense attorney and may end up being found guilty for a crime they never committed. It behooves us all to be vigilant and unrelenting in our efforts to free the innocent.

Errol Liverpool, PhD. LPC

Dr. Liverpool is the Clinical Director of an outpatient Mental Health facility in Southfield, Michigan. He is also an ordained minister, and an Adjunct professor at Wayne State University. He and his wife of 33 years like to travel and spend time with their granddaughter. 

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