Akili Charles had a lot of time to think about injustice as he waited nine years in an overcrowded cell in Port of Spain Prison before the court freed him from a murder charge.
“Many of us saw people serving sentences and leaving, and we were still in prison waiting for our cases to be heard. We knew we were innocent, and we were supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but in Trinidad, it feels like you’re guilty until proven innocent,” said Charles. “I couldn’t accept that after all the time spent in prison, I’d go to court one day and they would just say, ‘You’re free.’ That’s not enough.”
Charles, a practising Buddhist, believed there had to be a better sense of justice, so he legally challenged the system for violating his rights on several occasions.
Together, Charles and his lawyer, Wayne Sturge contacted Senior Counsel Anand Ramlogan, and sued the Attorney General for murder accused to have the right to apply for bail.
Last Thursday, 12 years after his ordeal began, the Privy Council in England upheld the local Court of Appeal’s decision. It said the Bail Act, which denied the right to apply for bail while on a murder charge, was unconstitutional.
Charles said, “The wait was frustrating. I often wondered if the court would come up with a good decision.”
For Charles, the breaking point for his long stay in remand came on an unexpected day in the magistrates’ court. For two years after he had been arrested for murder in 2010, Charles waited for his day in court. After constant postponements over the next five years, he went to court one day and heard Chief Magistrate Maria Busby Earle-Caddle say she would restart his matter, because Marcia Ayers-Caesar had been promoted to the position of High Court judge. Ayers-Caesar had a pile of unfinished cases.
“We only had about one more hearing for the matter to finish, and now we were told we were going to start over. So what would that be, another seven years?”
Enraged, Charles spoke out in court. That sparked what the media described as “a near-riot.”
“Inmates refused to go back into the holding cells,” said Charles.
Ayers-Caesar did not return to the magistrates’ court, but later resigned (itself the subject of a legal matter).
Charles returned to Port of Spain Prison and immersed himself in all the programmes he could: CXC English and maths, and a PVC furniture-making class run by the Wishing for Wings (W4W) Foundation. He participated in music class with Officer Lowe and was a member of the ground-breaking W4W/prison debate team, which led to prison debate teams being set up in all ten prisons.
His lowest point came while talking on the phone to his four-year-old daughter.
“She asked, ‘Daddy, when are you coming home?’
“I said, ‘Soon’, and she said, “Daddy, you’re always saying that.’
“I was missing her childhood.”
Akili Charles grew up on Covigne Road, Diego Martin, attended Newtown Boys’ Primary School and passed for St James Secondary School, where he got CXC passes in geography and POB.
“I always liked business classes,” he said.
In prison, he got a 3 in CXC maths and a 1 in CXC English.
“I loved Caribbean history class in prison. It made me think. I’m thankful for the prison programmes department. Before programmes, we were just in a cell 23 hours a day building anger.”
Before being in prison, Charles worked with the National Carnival Commission (NCC) for two years. He left that job to start a project with some friends.
“We secured a contract for national reforestation,” he said.
When the government closed the programme, Charles got them to reconsider.
“I was a supervisor when the programme started back – until I got arrested.”
On May 13, 2010, he was at home with his girlfriend and three-year-old daughter While watching football, he heard gunshots.
“I came outside and looked up towards the hills where the sound came from, but I didn’t see any crowd, so I went back inside to watch football. Then we went to sleep.”
He was awakened by banging on his door followed by shouting, “Police! Police! Police!”
“I thought it was a joke.”
He opened the door and saw an ambulance and several police officers.
“They shouted, ‘You’re under arrest for the murder of Russell Antoine.’
“I never heard of him. In prison, I learned he had a girlfriend in the area.”
Six people were arrested for Antoine’s murder.
“They found Antoine in someone’s yard.
“I believe they came after me because they arrested someone for the murder, and he started calling names to get out of trouble.
“That person never appeared in court. None of the so-called witnesses the police said they had ever came to court.”
Eventually all six accused were freed of the charges as Busby-Earle-Caddle ruled the State had failed to present sufficient evidence. In 2020, Charles was awarded compensation of almost $300,000 for breaches of his rights.
Charles said he had never been in any serious trouble before the night of the killing.
“Growing up, there had been some fighting, but nothing serious.”
Before this arrest, he was charged with a shooting in 2009.
“The same thing happened: a person called my name. They know Trinidad police don’t really investigate. The police go ahead with the arrests, hoping the person who called names will come to court.”
He considers himself quiet and easy-going, but Charles finds unfairness and injustice intolerable.
“Before prison, I wouldn’t say I wasn’t a complete version of myself, but I was trying. I had a daughter and was trying because of her.”
Always active in community events, he was proud to be from Covigne Road.
“I played football and basketball for our community. I was a competitor, and to me life was always about a community-oriented something. This was a good feeling. When I was younger, I watched the older fellows play for our community. That was embedded in us.”
But in prison, “I more or less kept to myself. Inside there is not the best place to look for friends.”
Prison was unimaginable.
“Conditions are unbearable – bags of faeces with the stench, and rats coming in your cell. Urine in the drains. Cells are not properly ventilated. They’re overcrowded, and the body heat makes them hotter. You make fans out of a cardboard box.”
But he found uplifting moments in prison – particularly while participating in the debate team.
“The debates got me interested in reading and research.
“We were allowed to bring guests, and I could debate in front of my daughter. It meant a lot to me for her to see me debating. I realised in prison, you’re not just there. You could do other things too.”
Now, with this bail ruling, Charles has a landmark case in TT.
“It might not make the courts hear cases faster, but I believe if police are held accountable, they might do a better job of investigating before they charge people.
“I spent nine years waiting to get out of prison. I’m hoping what happened to me won’t happen so easily to others. I know there are a lot of people in prison who are innocent. They are in my position.”