The aftermath of the events of May, 1973 (final part)
R. Rose - Eye of the Needle
June 2, 2023
The aftermath of the events of May, 1973 (final part)

It has taken me three parts spread over three weeks to reach the conclusion of my narrative on the shocking fatal shooting of Attorney General Cecil Rawle in May 1973 and the dramatic events which followed, extending well into 1976.

Last week we ended with the surrender of the main accused, Junior ‘Spirit’ Cottle on May, 27. He was badly wounded with a bullet to the neck and was somewhat delirious when I handed him over to the police. One week before that however, another of the accused, Marcus James was found dead, apparently shot through the heart during a police search for the three accused.

The circumstances surrounding his death caused quite a public storm. The official version was that James had committed suicide, but this was rejected by the Coroner’s inquest which suggested an extra-judicial killing. However, in the first of a number of very strange violations of the law, by successive administrations, the original verdict was ignored, and a new inquest convened which reverted to the original claim of suicide.

In addition to the flagrant violations of the human rights of several persons, not accused or linked with the murder but who were detained, beaten in some instances, and then released without charge, there was the denial of Cottle’s human and legal rights, even threatening his life. Though badly wounded, he was taken from hospital and incarcerated in a cell at Her Majesty’s Prisons, without any regard for his precarious condition. A delegation of concerned citizens, me included, persisted in getting an audience with then Premier Mitchell, pleading for humanitarian treatment for Cottle. He listened to our supplications and made no comment or commitment but to say that “Gentlemen, if you have finished what you have to say, this interview is over”.

The struggle to ensure both Cottle’s right to life and due judicial process was now truly enjoined. The biggest problem was securing adequate legal representation as those of us who undertook to give support did not possess the financial means to engage proper representation. As is the practice where murder is involved, the State would provide for legal representation, but such was the climate in the country that we wished to ensure that we got legal persons in whom we had utmost confidence. There were already too many violations of law and decency to be slack about it.

Here I must pay special tribute to three local lawyers who were brave enough to stand up for legal justice and defend Cottle and fellow accused Loraine Laidlow. The late Dr. Kenneth John had been providing legal and citizens advice to many “brothers” on issues like human rights and police harassment. He agreed to undertake the social burden of defending Cottle, not an easy decision in an atmosphere of social hostility.

Then there was Mr. Carlyle Dougan Q.C. and another local barrister, Mr. Hilary Samuel. Cottle might have well been dead today had it not been for their resolute insistence on legal justice and our determination to keep fighting. To them and to other legal luminaries who took part in the defence at one stage or another of the complicated processes, I am eternally grateful. The regional solidarity came in the form of three outstanding sons of the Caribbean, regrettably all now deceased – Maurice Bishop who went on to become Prime Minister of Grenada; Allan Alexander Q.C. of Trinidad and Tobago, one of that country’s legal luminaries; and Robert “Bobby” Clarke of Barbados, who earned the nickname and adulation as the “Poor People’s lawyer” in his country.

Cottle and Laidlow were eventually freed on the murder charge by the Privy Council which ruled that the state had violated the law by enjoining the murder charge with the one for the shooting of supermarket proprietor Gaymes. The charges should have been done separately since they required juries of different sizes.

But that was not the end of this, for on release from prison Cottle was promptly rearrested and charged for “shooting a police officer” on the day when he was himself badly shot by police. He was convicted and given a heavy prison sentence with little regard for all he had gone through.

I have taken these three weeks because we too easily forget the lessons of history. First, the context of May 1973, the “Black Power” era and fanatical state reaction throughout the region. Repression was the order of the day. In Dominica not only did Desmond Trotter get charged for murder, but there was a crusade against both Rastas and those who supported Cuba. It was not much different here and in other countries.

Then the blatant disregard for the rights of poor people.

When police hunted Cottle in the “Ghetto” and unleashed vicious volleys of tear gas, little did we see it coming against “respected” teachers in 1975. Different administrations, same treatment. Then the legal shenanigans during Cottle’s trials were something else. In fact, when the Privy Council dismissed Cottle’s murder charges, it warned that “this must never be done again”. And there was the first invitation to regional police cooperation, bringing the dogs from T&T.

Little did we realize that six years later we were to go further with Barbadian troops on our soil.

I can only conclude by appealing to young lawyers and human rights activists to study those lessons of history.

 

  • Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.