Haitian Teen Falls Into Trap of Dysfunctional Justice System

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Camesuze Jean Pierre and family

Mackenzie Rigg

Camesuze Jean Pierre on the right, with her mother, Linjour Marie Preciuese, and brother.

When 13-year-old Camesuze Jean Pierre entered the iron gates of the Petionville women’s prison, she feared she would never get out.

Crammed into a tiny cell with a dozen other women and their belongings, she didn’t even have a bed her first night there. She lay down on the cold cement floor, curled up with two flimsy, tattered cotton sheets. The bathroom was a hole in the floor. And all she was given to eat each day were two meals of oatmeal and cornmeal. For days, she refused to eat anything at all.

“I cried, I cried a lot,” she said, recalling her first day there.

When her uncle, Jean Pierre St. Dieu, came to visit two days after she arrived at the prison, Camesuze was still crying. “I had to give her hope that we are trying to get her out of jail,” he said, “and that she wasn’t going to be there forever.”

The other prisoners, all grown women, in Cell Number 33 gave Camesuze, a lanky teenager, a bucket so she could clean herself; they braided her dark brown hair and scrounged for money so she could buy food she liked.

But there was nothing anyone could do to ease the crowding in what used to be police barracks. The prison has a maximum capacity of about 80, but at any given time it holds about 300 prisoners.

The cells were so crowded that there wasn’t even room for the prisoners’ meager possessions, which had to be hung in brightly colored bags covering every inch of the walls. One cell used to be a bathroom. The toilets were removed, but the shower stalls remained and that’s where several women spent their days — sitting and lying down on thin mattresses covered with ratty blankets and sheets.

Camesuze was arrested on June 7, 2010 near her home, which is about two hours’ drive from Port-au-Prince. Two days later, she was brought to the women’s prison.

In their home, a small village of corn, rice and bean farms, Linjour Marie Preciuese, Camesuze’s mother, was heartbroken, worried about the daughter she could not care for herself. “My family,” she said, “wasn’t complete.”

Lawyers who worked on Camesuze’s case said she should never have been brought to the Petionville prison in the first place. Haitian law prohibits the detention of children younger than 16. Her jailing was therefore illegal. Even if she were an adult, she should have been released or tried in court after four months. Haitian law says those accused of a crime who are not tried within that period can petition to be released.

But she wasn’t.

Haitian prisons ranked among worst in world

In Haiti, officials routinely break their own laws as well as international treaties to which Haiti is a signatory, like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The prison system is no exception. Nationwide, the prison population exceeds 10,000, while the planned capacity of the facilities is 4,000 people maximum. About 80 percent of prisoners are in pretrial detention, according to a 2014 report by Gustavo Gallón, the United Nations independent expert on the situation of human rights in Haiti.

Haiti’s prisons rank among the worst in the world, falling below Haitian standards and even farther below international standards. The facilities are overcrowded, poorly maintained, unsanitary, often lack food and water and don’t have adequate medical services, according to a 2014 report to the U.N. by several nonprofits working on justice reform in Haiti.

Like Camesuze, nearly 90 percent of the approximately 320 women and minors in the Petionville prison as of Feb. 6 were still in pretrial detention, according to Josh Pazour, an American attorney and consultant for U.S. Agency for International Development’s democracy and governance office in Haiti.

Pretrial detention means they have not yet been tried for the crimes they allegedly committed.

Many criminal defendants don’t understand their legal rights, don’t have access to legal counsel and don’t understand the legal proceedings, which are conducted in French even though most Haitians only understand Haitian Creole, according to the report to the U.N.

Justice reforms haven’t been prioritized because the violations mostly affect poor people, the report says: “Wealthy people are able to buy their way out of jail with expensive lawyers and bribes.”

The United States, other international donors and the United Nations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the last two decades to help Haiti reform its dysfunctional justice system. Reducing the number of people in prolonged pretrial detentions has been a top priority.

Pazour started work on this problem in the 1990s. He worked as an intern for Maury Geiger, a former Department of Justice lawyer, who co-founded the Rural Justice Center, a nonprofit organization. Pazour interned when he was in college and started to work for it full time in 2002.

At best, he said, the rate of pretrial detentions has been slowed. Even that is due mainly to successes in prisons outside Port au Prince. He said pretrial rates in the men’s and women’s prisons in the capital remain stagnant or continue to worsen.

Foreign aid not seen as effective fix

Many explanations have been offered for the malaise: corruption, which is pervasive in Haiti, cripples an already broken justice system marked by an outdated criminal code; a shortage of qualified judges and prosecutors; a lack of coordination among the police, prosecutors and correctional officers; and scarce resources from the Haitian government. The impunity with which law enforcers and court officials themselves can get away with breaking the law doesn’t help.

U.S. and other foreign aid has largely failed to fix Haiti's broken justice system. According to several reports commissioned since 2000 to look at donor-funded justice reform efforts, the programs were sometimes poorly planned and badly executed.

Moreover, the efforts were uncoordinated among the several U.S. agencies, as well as the different countries and organizations involved, including the Haitian government, the reports said. This resulted in donors working at cross-purposes and programs often being imposed on Haitians, rather than working with them to develop a solution suited for them.

“I think it reflects over 200 years of indifference or worse to human rights, especially the rights of detainees or others who have often been presumed guilty,” said William O’Neill, a human rights lawyer who ran the legal department of the first United Nations mission in 1993.

O’Neill said pretrial detention has never been a priority of the Haitian government, except for brief flurries when under pressure from the U.N. or bilateral donors. There have been periods where various U.N. missions, the U.S., France and Canada have urged the government to do something.

“And crucially, no one has ever been punished for violating the Constitution and the law,” he said.

But the donors are responsible, too, he said. “There has never been that type of organizational culture that demands results internally or bilaterally between the donors and Haitian government. The money kept on flowing with no one saying, ‘What difference is it making?’”

Jail term began with flowers

Camesuze ended up in prison after a childish fight turned tragic. She recalled walking home from a visit to her grandmother on a spring day in the rolling hills of the town of Saut d’Eau. The route took her past cornfields and wooded areas. Along the way, she saw a woman with pink flowers. She asked for some and the woman, a neighbor, gave her two.

Camesuze is soft-spoken and was obviously uncomfortable when asked to relive that day. She remembers running into a classmate, Vilnord Aurel, just as she was approaching the rocky and steep path to her tiny cement home. They started to argue over the flowers. He threw a rock, which hit Camesuze’s left leg. She threw one back that hit the boy on the back of his head.

Camesuze’s mother, Preciuese, said she gave the boy first aid shortly after the fight. She didn’t witness it, but saw Vilnord soon afterward. She said the wound wasn’t bleeding much.

Alexandre Genevieve

Mackenzie Rigg

Vilnord’s mother, Alexandre Genevieve.

But Vilnord’s mother, Alexandre Genevieve, had a different account. Sitting on a blanket outside her small shack not far from where the incident took place, she said Camesuze went up to her son with a rock in her hand and hit him twice over the head and that his injuries were more severe. But she also wasn’t there when the fight took place. Genevieve brought her son to a hospital a few days later as he took a turn for the worse.

Eight days after the argument, Vilnord died. A day after his death, Camesuze was arrested in Saut d’Eau, on June 7, 2010. The next day she was brought to Mirebalais, a nearby town. Two days after her arrest, she was brought to the women’s prison in Petionville.

The prosecutor assigned to her case, Magistrate Gabord Antoine, said in a 2012 interview that Camesuze’s case posed a “serious problem.” The law, he said, mandates that the government should have a center for children in trouble with the law, but that doesn’t exist. He said foster homes typically don’t want to take in children who are in the justice system.

And he didn’t want Camesuze to go home to Saut d’Eau because he worried Vilnord’s family would seek revenge. She was sent to prison for her protection, he said.

Antoine sent Camesuze’s case to Investigative Judge Belette Larose. According to Haitian law, investigative judges have two months to conclude their investigations and one more month to produce a report that would recommend whether the accused should be released or go to trial and on what specific charge.

Court records show that Larose made her final report on Dec. 23, 2010, two months longer than the period prescribed by law. Larose insisted in a 2012 interview that she followed the law and that Camesuze’s court documents were inaccurate: The prosecutor’s office didn’t give her the documents on the dates listed, but much later.

In the report, Camesuze was charged with “assault and wounds that led to the death of Vilnord Aurel” and Larose recommended that she go to trial. Antoine, the prosecutor, supported this recommendation.

So Camesuze remained in the crowded and dirty Petionville prison. “I felt awful,” she said. “I felt like I was going to die. I couldn’t leave, I couldn’t do anything.

“Every day I thought about getting out.”

Reports say system runs on bribes

Corruption is the biggest cause of prolonged pretrial detentions, according to the 2014 report submitted to the U.N. by the nonprofit organizations.

“Rules and decisions of the court are applied inconsistently and arbitrarily, encouraging and fueling the corruption endemic to the criminal justice system,” the report said.

“There are laws, but they don’t apply to those who don’t have money,” said Mario Joseph, managing attorney of Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) in Port-au-Prince, which has helped victims prosecute human rights cases, trained Haitian lawyers and spoken out on justice issues since 1995.

If two people from different social strata commit the same crime and are arrested, the one with money will get out faster than the other by bribing the judge, he said.

Camesuze’s family didn’t have this option. They sold most of their belongings, including two cars, land and a horse, to pay for Vilnord’s funeral and have been struggling since then to get by and feed their family.

While the rich may be able to bribe their way out of prison, the poor have to take their chances in overloaded, understaffed and inefficient courts. Haiti’s code of criminal procedure mandates two jury trial sessions in each of its 16 jurisdictions per year. About 10 cases can be heard at each session, so the total capacity of the system is about 160 to 320 jury trials per year, according to the 2007 USAID audit. In 2006, there were 2,000 inmates in just the National Penitentiary awaiting jury trials, the audit said.

The case overload is aggravated by the fact that judges and prosecutors don’t always show up, so it takes years to conclude a lawsuit.

In the 1990s, Pazour and Geiger tried to figure out what was causing the long delays in the adjudication of cases in Haiti. They heard different theories from different people, so they looked into the problem themselves.

They started at the National Penitentiary, Haiti’s largest prison. There, Pazour said, they were surprised to find that when prisoners were called to go to court, they usually ignored the summons. When asked why, their answers were invariably the same: They showed up in court a number of times but the prosecutor never showed up, so they ended up missing their only meal of the day, which was served in the prison.

Geiger and Pazour hired 20 Haitian law students and assigned them 10 cases each. They were to follow the cases, sit at the court proceedings and record what happened. The findings: In 90 percent of the cases, the scheduled trial or hearing didn’t take place because the prosecutor or judge didn’t show up.

To remedy the situation, Geiger and Pazour set up a courtroom in the prison and brought in judges and prosecutors. The program ran for about six months, but fell into disarray after they left Haiti. Pazour said it affected about 400 prisoners.

But no-show judges aren’t the only problem. The record-keeping system in the courts is in shambles and basically nonexistent. Pazour said sloppy and incomplete case files are the norm. Documents are often missing or arrive late.

Reasons include corruption and no centralized case management system. Records are often handwritten and kept in courthouses scattered across the country. Court clerks want kickbacks to finish their work; and getting access to a record or file or putting a case before a judge for a review almost always requires a bribe, he said.

USAID efforts continue

These problems are hardly secret. In fact, donors have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to fix some of them. By the time Camesuze was born in 1997, the U.S. had been working for three years on reforming the Haitian judiciary. These efforts began in 1994, after the U.S. led a military intervention in Haiti to reinstall the democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been ousted by a military coup.

U.S. assistance was initially intended to help improve the judicial system.

Between 1994 and 2000, the United States provided about $97 million. It gave about $70 million to help recruit, train, organize and equip the police. The funds were used to create specialized police units and the Haitian Coast Guard. The remainder went to training prosecutors and judges.

The U.S.-funded justice programs have mainly been administered by USAID, although the Department of Justice and the Department of State also implemented programs.

In 2000, the U.S. Government Accountability Office assessed these efforts and concluded that the assistance hadn’t been entirely effective largely because of the Haitian government’s indifference toward justice reform.

“The Haitian government’s lack of clear commitment to addressing the major problems of its police and judicial institutions has been the key factor affecting the success of U.S. assistance provided,” the report said.

At the end of July 2000, the U.S. suspended all its assistance to Haiti’s judicial sector because, according to the GAO report, the two countries “were unable to reach an agreement for continuing assistance.”

From 2001 to 2004, USAID discontinued technical assistance and instead financed a $3.6 million contract with the International Foundation for Election Systems, a U.S. nonprofit organization, to work with civil society organizations to help them press for reform.

Aid going directly to the Haitian government for the justice sector was resumed around 2004 and pretrial detention continued to be one of the areas targeted. But the problem remains today.

A 2007 audit completed by USAID’s Office of Inspector General analyzed a program implemented by a U.S.-based nonprofit, the National Center for State Courts, from September 2005 through September 2007. One of the program’s goals was to reduce pretrial detention by improving the flow of cases through the police, prisons and court system.

The audit said that while there were “no objective criteria available for comparing planned and actual results,” the program had some positive results, including a case flow study to help identify bottlenecks in the justice system and developing different procedural rules for the justice of the peace courts.

Despite these, the pretrial problem worsened.

“USAID-supported activities have been constructive but were not of sufficient magnitude to have a significant impact on the pretrial problem,” the report said.

The report also described how USAID/Haiti had no monitoring and evaluation officer for six years before the audit. Because indicators and targets weren’t clearly defined, USAID/Haiti could not compare planned and actual results or ensure that intended results were achieved. USAID/Haiti also misreported results, such as how many justice officials it trained. Moreover, civil unrest, which forced evacuations of the mission staff in 2004 and 2005, made it hard for staff to implement programs.

An earlier assessment of USAID’s justice reform efforts had similar findings. The National Center for State Courts wrote a report that included an analysis of USAID’s justice reform initiatives from 1994 to 2004.

This included a program implemented by USAID through its contractor Checchi between 1996 and 2000. The project was to provide support to the justice of peace courts to set up a system of case tracking — a mechanism that many agreed could help decrease the number of those in prolonged pretrial detentions.

The report says the case-tracking program was first used in 24 courts and was to be expanded into 64 courts throughout the country. In 2000, the program ended, having been implemented in 83 courts.

“The effectiveness of the program is, however, another matter,” the report said. “Since the case registration form fails to record information pertaining to the custodial status of criminal defendants, the form is of little use in addressing the problem of unjustified, prolonged pretrial detentions.”

Additionally, the report said individual donor efforts frequently supported goals determined by the donor country, which tended to mirror the national procedures of the donor country, rather than reflecting Haitian ideas or approaches.

“This tendency has led to sharp criticism that international donor programs, to include USAID partner-implemented programs, were imposed on the Haitians, rather than developed in concert with Haitian counterparts.”

USAID spokeswoman Lisa Hibbert-Simpson said in an email that the agency continues to address pretrial detention in the short term by providing equipment, technical assistance and improved case management in some parts of the country.

The agency deployed Haiti’s first computerized case management system in Saint-Marc last October, she said. They have also worked with local bar associations, prosecutors, magistrates and court personnel to improve case tracking and expedite processing hundreds of cases annually.

USAID also supported efforts to reconstruct and archive 32,000 case files at the Port-au-Prince prosecutor’s office and Court of First Instance that were damaged or destroyed in the January 2010 earthquake, she said.

Pazour, now a consultant for USAID, does have some hope for the future. When he first started working in Haiti, those in power came from an older generation who had survived the Duvalier regimes. He described them as authoritarian and rigid. But the new, younger generation, many of whom have worked with USAID contractors, are “much more capable and more comfortable stating their opinion,” he said.

USAID’s democracy and governance office in Haiti is being run more effectively now, he said. There are more qualified people working there and they are strengthening their monitoring and evaluation systems, he said.

“They have become much more sophisticated,” Pazour said.

The Haitian government has also taken some steps to reform the system, like providing more training for prosecutors and judges, said Brian Concannon, the executive director of the Institute of Justice and Democracy in Haiti.

Haiti also established the Superior Judicial Council in 2012, a newly formed body that is charged to provide independent oversight of the judiciary. The U.S. government has provided technical assistance to the council, including the Judicial Inspection Unit, which will conduct the vetting and certification of about 1,000 judges, Hibbert-Simpson said.

But the Haitian government isn’t addressing the biggest factor that causes pretrial detention — corruption, Concannon said. “As long as you keep ignoring it, the problem of pretrial detention is never going away.”

Americans get involved in teen’s case

Pazour and Geiger met Camesuze while working at a USAID-funded project in the women’s prison. Camesuze had been in jail about two months when the warden told them about her case.

Geiger and Pazour interviewed her and visited her family in Saut d’Eau, where they also spoke with Vilnord’s uncle. They interviewed eyewitnesses and people familiar with the incident, Pazour said. The visit convinced them she was innocent of murder and reinforced their belief that her case didn’t belong in the legal system.

In Haiti, murder requires an intent to kill. Since Vilnord died eight days later, there could have been many intervening causes that could have resulted in his death, Pazour said.

They decided to have two Haitian lawyers from the Rural Justice Center, which was working on another USAID contract, represent Camesuze. The lawyers spent most of their time talking to the prosecutors and judges involved, just so the case would be heard, Pazour said.

Their badgering paid off. On May 4, 2011, Camesuze’s trial began. Her mother, father, aunt and uncle attended. Vilnord’s mother was there, too. The case was heard at the children’s tribunal, a nondescript cement building in downtown Port-au-Prince.

The deliberations took only an afternoon. The charges against Camesuze were dropped and the judge said she could go home. She went to Petionville to gather her belongings and went back to Saut d’Eau. Altogether she spent 326 days in prison for a crime she did not commit.

Today Camesuze is back in the countryside living with her parents. She says life has been miserable since returning from prison. She hasn’t gone back to school, rarely eats and has to walk miles to get water.

She was labeled a criminal in her town when she returned and people have called her that to her face. She said it wasn’t fair she was jailed because she didn’t murder Vilnord.

Her father said Camesuze was put in prison by God.

“I do not want to voice my opinion because they are the authority and I have learned not to go against authority,” said Camesuze’s father, Apredieu Jean Pierre, a rice, corn and bean farmer. He is in his 50s but looks much older — skinny and hair that’s graying.

“The justice system put her there and I had to be patient and wait for a final decision to abide by,” he said. “We felt awful in our lives. We didn’t have any choice but to keep on living, because we couldn’t go in there and get her.”