Convicts seek to quash conviction, claim evidence prejudicial
Neesa Gopaul murder appeal
In an attempt to quash their March 2015 conviction for the October 2010 murder of 16-year-old Neesa Gopaul, her mother, Bibi Gopaul and Jarvis Small on Friday argued that prejudicial evidence was led against them by the prosecution which renders their conviction unsafe. Bibi Goopaul and Small were sentenced to 102- and 96-years’ imprisonment respectively by Justice Navindra Singh for the murder of the former Queen’s College student.
Both Gopaul and Small are contesting their conviction and sentence on the basis that the trial Judge made several errors in law which included admitting prejudicial evidence and failing to properly direct the jury. They argued that the sentences they received were excessive, irrational and not grounded in any established legal principles as required by law.
Media reports are that the dismembered and headless remains of the younger Gopaul were found stuffed in a suitcase in a creek along the Linden-Soesdyke Highway. Also discovered were a passport and a bank card that bore the teen’s name. The suitcase was wrapped with rope and attached to dumbbells in an apparent effort to keep the young woman’s body submerged. She was found weeks after she was reported missing from her Leonora, West Coast Demerara home. Her cause of death was multiple blunt force trauma to the head.
Hearing the appeal virtually on Friday were Chancellor of the Judiciary, Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards and Justices of Appeal Rishi Persaud and Dawn Gregory. Representing Small were Attorneys-at-Law Nigel Hughes, Ronald Daniels and Sophia Findlay, while Arudranauth Gosai appeared on behalf of Bibi Gopaul.
In addressing the court on why the conviction against his client should be quashed, Hughes submitted that the most grievous issue was the failure by the trial Judge to severe the indictments which would have allowed for his client to be tried separately from Bibi Gopaul. Hughes pointed to the evidence of the prosecution’s main witness, Simone De Nobrega, who was a cellmate of Bibi Gopaul and who had testified that the murder convict told her that it was Small who had killed her daughter by bashing in her head with a piece of wood.
According to Hughes, even with the best of directions in the world, a jury would still be unable to divorce the statements made between Bibi Gopaul and a third party [De Nobrega] when considering the evidence led against his client. The lawyer reasoned that the only possible impact of the testimony of that witness would have been unfavourable to Small. He said that denying an application to have the indictment severed during the trial, led to the collusion of the case against Small being inevitable.
With regards to the dumbbells, he said that a prosecution witness had testified that he sold the items to Small, while another said that Small packed them up while he was moving to another location.
Assuming that the dumbbells belonged to Small, an issue Hughes said that was raised during the trial; he contended that there is no nexus in the form of direct or circumstantial evidence between his client, the dumbbells and the murder of the young woman.
Relying on a case from the Privy Council, Gosai argued that Justice Singh failed to adequately direct the jury on how to deal with the evidence of De Nobrega. Further, he added that the Judge failed to highlight to the jury the discrepancies in her testimony and the prosecution’s case.
According to the lawyer, the Judge failed to inform the jury that De Nobrega was convicted for crimes of a dishonest nature. Apart from being convicted, he said that the woman had close to 26 charges pending for such crimes.
He explained that the records of appeal show that the Judge admitted the evidence on the basis that he would properly direct the jury, but in the end, failed to do so.
Unless it can show that the evidence is linked and relevant to the charge against Bibi Gopaul, Gosai pointed out that this kind of evidence should not have been put to the jury for consideration. Even if the proper direction were given to the jury, Gosai noted that the evidence was so prejudicial, they would have concluded that she committed the crime.
Hughes and Gosai are also challenging the custodial sentences imposed by the Judge.
In recent time, he noted that the Guyana Court of Appeal has been reducing lengthy sentences imposed on murder and manslaughter convicts to one-third of the original sentence.
According to Hughes, the sentence of 96 years imposed on his client is not only excessive, but beyond the natural life of the average Guyanese. He added that imposing a sentence that is beyond one’s natural life and three times more than what would have been imposed by the Court of Appeal is unduly served.
As for Gosai, he relied on the submissions made by Hughes in challenging the severity of his client’s sentence.
For her part, Senior State Counsel, Stacy Goodings dismissed submissions that the jury was not properly directed as to how to deal with the evidence of the prosecution’s main witness. Asked by Justice Cummings-Edwards to respond to Gosai’s contention that the Judge failed to administer the caution to the jury as required by the Privy Council case, before putting the evidence of De Nobrega to them, Goodings maintained that the jury was adequately and properly directed.
According to Prosecutor Goodings, the records of appeal reflect that Justice Singh told the jury that they must be “mindful” when considering the evidence of this witness.
Responding to the issue of prejudicial evidence in relation to the death of Bibi Gopaul’s husband being put to the jury for deliberation in the absence of a warning, Prosecutor Goodings said that this sort of evidence was used as regards to the story told by Bibi Gopaul.
She noted that she was also in agreement with the recent position adopted by the Guyana Court of Appeal as it relates to imposing sentences for murder and manslaughter. The State Counsel urged the court that when considering the ground of severity of sentence, they must consider the facts of the case.
This is that someone – Neesa Gopaul – suffered a gruesome death and that there was evidence as to how she was treated prior to her demise. According to Goodings, while the trial Judge did not give reasoning how he arrived at a starting point for the sentences, he did indicate what aggravating factors he considered in increasing the sentences for Small and Gopaul to 96 and 102 years respectively.
The court will hear additional submissions in this case on November 11.