Tuesday 20th June, 2006 Posted: 15:39 CIT (20:39 GMT)
The young woman who admitted carrying a kilo of cocaine from Cayman Brac to Grand Cayman in December 2003 was sentenced last week to five years imprisonment.
Topaz General was 19 at the time of the offence. She pleaded guilty and gave evidence at the trial of three other defendants accused of being involved.
On 26 May, Magistrate Nova Hall found Christopher O’Connor guilty and sentenced him to 12 years imprisonment. The Crown’s case was that O’Connor, 27, recruited General to go to the Brac and bring the cocaine back to him.
On O’Connor’s behalf, Defence Attorney John Furniss gave immediate notice of appeal.
The third defendant, Fernando Thompson, was found not guilty. The Crown alleged that Thompson, 25, was the person on the Brac from whom General received the cocaine. He was represented by Attorney Lloyd Samson.
The fourth defendant, Eric Frank Russell, was discharged after the evidence was completed for the Prosecution. General’s evidence was that Russell, 22, had driven her to the airport in Grand Cayman and purchased her plane ticket for her.
Defence Attorney Margetta Facey–Clarke successfully submitted that there was no case for Russell to answer. Crown Counsel Tanya Lobban agreed there was no evidence to show that he had any knowledge of the cocaine. There was no indication he had taken part in any discussion about it or any evidence that he was even present when plans were made.
In finding Thompson not guilty, the magistrate said the evidence fell short of the standard the Crown was obliged to meet.
General had told the court that Thompson came to her hotel room the night she arrived and he placed the cocaine in her luggage.
Questioned by Mr. Samson, she acknowledged leaving her hotel room to go to a bar/restaurant and speaking with Thompson there. She did not recall how she got back to the hotel. There was no testimony as to how Thompson would have carried the cocaine or how he would have come to be in her hotel room.
The magistrate accepted that General had not fully refreshed her memory from statements she had given almost two and a half years earlier. In the end, however, she found that insufficient detail had been given about Thompson’s alleged involvement.
There were other facts that raised suspicions, but the weakness in the evidence had to be resolved in Thompson’s favour, the magistrate said.
She also referred to Thompson’s own evidence, which was that he had seen General at the bar/ restaurant. He had seen her previously but was not acquainted with her. He spoke to the man she was with, but did not have any conversation with her. After 11pm, he hitched a ride home and went to sleep.
He denied being part of any plan to transport cocaine and denied giving any to General.
General was arrested after Customs officials at Owen Roberts Airport in Grand Cayman found the cocaine in her luggage. She subsequently named O’Connor and agreed to take part in a sting operation.
O’Connor gave evidence and said he accepted the package from General because he had lent her a travelling bag; in thanking him, she had said she would bring something for him from the Brac.
The magistrate said she found O’Connor’s evidence curious, in that he told the court he did not know what type of gift General would bring him. But when cross–examined by Ms Lobban, he admitted that when police cautioned him, he said General was supposed to bring him fish.
The magistrate said she had to consider the credibility of General. She found that General’s testimony about events in Grand Cayman had a flow and detail that made her tale compelling, especially when she described how she was recruited as a courier.
At the sentencing hearing, Defence Attorney James Austin–Smith told the court that general had absolutely no idea of the seriousness of what she was getting into when she agreed to bring the drug back from the Brac. She had been lured into this by more sophisticated offenders.
General accepted that she did wrong, but since then had done everything she could to make amends, Mr. Austin–Smith said. She made a statement to police, went on the sting operation at some risk to herself and in fact since then had been threatened not to give evidence.
She had had the matter hanging over her head for over two and a half years and had been awaiting sentence since entering her guilty plea in 2004. The court could take all those things into account, Mr. Austin–Smith submitted.
He noted that O’Connor’s sentence was 12 years, but General would be at a lower starting point because her role was not as the organiser. From a lower starting point, the court should then give her discounts for her guilty plea and assistance, he said.
The magistrate said she did not need to state how seriously the courts view drug trafficking. Distribution of hard drugs attracts high sentences, she pointed out.
General did not import the cocaine from another country, but transported it between islands. Her story was typical of couriers from elsewhere: she was young and broke, and offered an opportunity to make some quick cash.
General was entitled to a discount for her plea and level of assistance, the magistrate agreed. As an aside, she noted that the reward was for the fact that General had testified; it was not based on the outcome of the trial.
She considered 12 years to be the appropriate starting point because of the quantity and General’s role. The sentence of five years reflected the mitigating factors, she indicated.