Kartel: Beyond Reasonable Doubt? Published: Sunday | March 16, 2014

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 11, states: “Everyone
charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent
until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has
had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.”
In the case of
Vybz Kartel, I speculate that nice and decent people in Jamaica have
confidently presumed that the DJ is far from innocent. Proving guilt is
an irrelevant obstruction of justice.

Life often imitates art. And
Kartel’s lyrics, however clever, can also be quite deadly. Much blood
and gore, like many a Hollywood film! A man who deejays about gun
violence must be a gunman in exactly the same way that the author of a
crime novel must be a criminal. Not quite. In the respectable worlds of
literature and film, we don’t assume that the author is identical with
her or his fictional characters. We know better than that.

Not so
for dancehall culture. We do not allow DJs the luxury of role play and
artistic freedom. The same people who danced merrily to Buju Banton’s Driver
soon decided that the song was autobiographical when the DJ got
arrested and charged with intent to distribute cocaine. “Seet deh! ‘Im
done confess.” Why would he? In exactly the same way, we perversely
refuse to concede the possibility that ‘Vybz Kartel’ is a persona, a
mask worn by an actor to project a fabricated character.

As a
consequence, it is not Adidja Palmer who has been on trial for murder.
It is Vybz Kartel. 

I wonder if the media’s insistence on calling Adidja
Palmer by his stage name may not have been prejudicial. Has Adidja
Palmer’s right to be presumed innocent perhaps been violated by the
constant assertion that his ‘real’ identity is actually Vybz Kartel? Has
Adidja Palmer been proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt? Or is it the
cardboard cutout, Vybz Kartel?

The ‘reasonable
doubt’ rule is cited these days to ensure the fairness of a verdict in
the interest of the accused. But what, exactly, is ‘reasonable doubt’?
It’s a legal term that seems to mystify even the experts, let alone an
amateur jury. In my search to understand its meaning, I discovered a
fascinating book by James Whitman, professor of law at Yale University: 

The Origins of Reasonable Doubt: Theological Roots of the Criminal Trial.

Whitman makes a startling claim: “The
‘reasonable doubt’ rule was not originally designed to serve the
purpose it is asked to serve today: It was not originally designed to
protect the accused. Instead, it was designed to protect the souls of
the jurors against damnation.”
The question of ‘reasonable doubt’ was, essentially, a theological issue. Whitman argues, “Convicting an innocent defendant was regarded, in the older Christian tradition, as a potential mortal sin.”

Whitman elaborates: “The
purpose of the ‘reasonable doubt’ instruction was to address this
frightening possibility, reassuring jurors that they could convict the
defendant without risking their own salvation, as long as their doubts
about guilt were not ‘reasonable’.”
In an age when the biblical
warning, “Judge not, lest you be judged,” was taken literally, both
judges and jurors feared for their souls. In these secular times, judges
and jurors sometimes fear for their lives, not just their souls.


many Jamaicans, at home and abroad, the outcome of the trial of the
notorious Vybz Kartel is a victory for the Jamaican justice system –
beyond reasonable doubt. Take, for instance, this comment by ‘Sonny
Black’ posted on  
The Gleaner’s website: “This is great news
coming out of Jamaica. My morning coffee never tasted so good. My faith
in the broken-down justice system in Jamaica has been restored. For too
long these lowlifes masquerading as celebrities have used their
disgusting lifestyles to corrupt our youth and blight our future as a
nation. Next step is to throw away the keys of any prison he may enter.
Let the Patois Doctor who worships him and promoted him as an example
for young Jamaicans to emulate visit and keep him company. Bravo, Judge
and Jury, you both have made Jamaica proud.”

I suppose I’m the
‘Patois Doctor’. I, too, am on trial. And I’m certainly not presumed to
be innocent. One of my crimes is advocacy of respect for the Jamaican
language and those who speak it. Another crime is my recognition of
Kartel’s iconic stature as a talented lyricist and performing artist.

Inviting Vybz Kartel to speak at the University of the West Indies,
Mona, is yet another crime. It must mean that I ‘worship’ the artiste,
etc. For punishment, I must be sent to prison, if only for regular

In truth, like those jurors of old, I wish to protect my
soul. I refuse to commit the mortal sin of convicting an innocent
defendant, especially if I’m the one in the dock. But, in all
seriousness, I keep asking myself if Adidja Palmer has been convicted
beyond reasonable doubt – in the modern sense of the legal term. I also
wonder if he’s really innocent.

Carolyn Cooper is professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona

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