Parika fuel dealer murder: “Yankee” appeals 70-year sentence

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L-R: Seeram Singh and Curt Thomas

A mere five days after he was sentenced to 70 years in prison for the April 2016 murder of Parika, East Bank Essequibo (EBE) businessman Seeram Singh, 44-year-old Curt Thomas filed an appeal challenging the decision of the trial court.

On November 11, 2020, Thomas, also known as “Yankee”, was found guilty by a jury of the April 30, 2016 murder of Singh, 52, who was shot to the head and hip during a robbery. He was subsequently sentenced to 70 years in jail by Justice Navindra Singh.

Thomas would only become eligible for parole after serving a minimum of 40 years. However, Thomas continued to maintain that he was innocent of the crime. Media reports at the time stated that Singh, a fuel dealer, of Lot 40 Parika Outfall, was on his mobile phone when he was attacked.

In an attempt to raise the alarm, the injured man ran towards a shop in the area, but the gunman gave chase and caught up with him. A scuffle ensued, and it was then that the gunman shot Singh. Reports are as the businessman fell, the gunman relieved him of two gold chains and escaped. Singh was rushed to the Leonora Cottage Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

In a Notice of Appeal filed at the Court of Appeal, Thomas, through his lawyer, Lydon Amsterdam, is asking that his conviction and sentence be set aside. In doing so, the convict proffered eight grounds. He has mainly taken issue with how the identification parade was conducted.

According to his lawyer, the trial judge wrongly admitted the results of an identification parade even though there was conflicting evidence that tended to show that persons on the parade were not of a similar age, race, general appearance, and class of life as his client.

“The learned trial judge during his summation of the evidence to the jury posed several rhetorical questions for their consideration which were prejudicial to the accused [Thomas] and may have influenced the jury in their deliberation of the evidence to arrive at a verdict, unfavourable to the accused,” argues Amsterdam.

Further, Attorney Amsterdam argues that the summation of the evidence by the trial judge was not balanced as Justice Singh emphasised aspects of the evidence favourable to the prosecution’s case and omitted to mention inconsistencies and contradictions in the evidence which tended to weaken the case for the prosecution.

Among other things, the lawyer contends that his client did not have a fair trial, because only a selected number of witnesses who gave evidence in the Preliminary Inquiry (PI) were called at the trial, and witnesses who gave evidence that conflicted with those witnesses and tended to show that another person may have killed Singh were not called at the trial.

Thomas submits that his sentence is too severe in all the circumstances of the case. “The learned trial judge utilised a formula in passing the sentence of 70 years that is without legal basis and he failed to take into account established sentencing guidelines and gave the accused a sentence that was inconsistent with the current sentencing practice,” Amsterdam further argues.

State Prosecutor Tuanna Hardy had urged the jury to convict Thomas of the crime during her closing address. The Prosecutor had told the jury that she was able to meet the burden of proof.

Hardy had insisted that it was Thomas who shot and killed the businessman. In doing so, she pointed to the testimonies of witnesses for the prosecution, including Rajmohan Autar, who positively identified Thomas during an identification parade.

The Prosecutor was keen to point out to the jury that the forensic analyst testified that the clothing said to be worn by Thomas on the night of the shooting which was submitted for testing tested positive for gunpowder residue. The Prosecutor had also told the jury that the witnesses called by her were credible.

In examining the unsworn testimony Thomas gave in his defence, Hardy pointed out that he brought no witnesses to disprove the prosecution’s case. Instead, she submitted, the witness whom he called to testify on his behalf placed him at the location where the robbery-murder occurred.

During his virtual testimony from the Lusignan Prison, Thomas stated that he was nowhere near the crime scene, nor did he know Singh. He had alleged that one of the lead detectives in the case was trying to frame him for the murder. He had claimed that his girlfriend and the Police rank had previously shared a relationship. Dorothy Pratt, the mother of Thomas’s girlfriend, testified on his behalf. The woman told the court that on the night in question, Thomas was at her home at 21:00h.

During cross-examination, however, Prosecutor Hardy challenged her evidence. Pratt, when questioned by the Prosecutor, was unable to account for Thomas’s whereabouts any time before or after that time. Against this backdrop, Prosecutor Hardy implored the jury to look at the evidence, for in doing so, they would arrive at the inescapable conclusion that it was Thomas who shot and killed the fuel dealer.