Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Trial of the Ornithologist-Arms Dealer of Goroka (part 3)

The Trial of the Ornithologist-Arms Dealer of Goroka
by A. Mack (& F. Kafka)

Part 3 of 3

A trial date was set in a few months. 
Then it was cancelled.
Then a new date was set.
Then it was cancelled.

I lost track of how many dates were set and postponed.  The judge was on vacation, it was too close to Christmas... you name it.  But at any rate, it was well over a year until a date was set and not postponed.  In all that time I had to build my field schedule and travel and life around ephemeral court dates.  I just wanted to go to court and get on with it.

The day was finally here.  An assistant state's attorney flew up from Port Moresby to prosecute the case.  She was put up in the most expensive hotel in town.  Already this was costing the state more than the maximum fine could be.  In the documents we received from the prosecutor we learned that this was the only federal case being tried in Eastern Highlands Province that year.  Now if you know PNG, you are familiar with its reputation for crime and corruption.  But in this province of 250,000 people, my box of #13 shot .410 shells was the only issue worth taking to trial.  It seemed someone had it in for me.

Bernie and I arranged to meet the prosecuting attorney before the trial.  I wanted to see if we could bargain.  I was prepared to plead no contest and pay the maximum penalty and all court costs, just so long as it did not appear on my record in a way that could jeopardize my visa.  The prosecutor did not even think it over. 
"We need to prosecute crimes like this."  she said.

Bernie gave a little shrug.  He did not seem too concerned.

The time came and into the court we went.  If you are picturing anything like a courtroom like the hundreds you see on television, you are nowhere near picturing this court.

This room was more like a simple school class room.  The two sides of the court were jalousie windows, with a good number of broken panes.  A crowd of 60-80 onlookers pressed their faces to the windows.  The judicial offices were part of a complex of government offices where at any time hundreds of people loitered, mostly waiting for someone to show up in their office, or they were office workers out for a chew of buai and storytelling with some wantoks.

Inside the court was a battered creaky wood floor.  There were two tables behind which the two lawyers sat with   briefcases in front of them.  On the side was a bench made of a single 2X8.  That was where I sat.  In the front was a little podium like thing the judge sat behind, facing the lawyers.  

 I was going to spend hours sitting on the plank facing a wall of people gawking at me.  "Hey, there's a white guy on trial!"  This was indeed something new.

PNG is part of the British Commonwealth.  They acquired some of the same traditions.  The lawyers and judge all wore long black robes.  The robes looked like they might have dated back to colonial days.... not when Australia ran things, but back to British days after World War I.

The lawyers and judge all had white wigs on.  Well, perhaps white at one time.   But these wigs looked like they had once be used in England and when no longer fit for use, sent to PNG.... some decade or so ago and never washed.  The wigs were not white, not gray, but tinged with a brownish color.  They looked like they'd been used to mop up spilled Coke.  Often.  I'm sorry, but to an American there is something ridiculous looking about black Papuans with their curly hair (long in the case of the prosecutor) standing with dirty wigs sort of perched atop their heads, like a road killed poodle landed on top of them.

The Prosecutor stood and began her introduction

"Your honor we are here today to hear the case of....."

"STOP" said the judge.  Was it over already?  Was he about to throw out the case?

No, he was writing her words verbatim with a pencil on a yellow lined tablet.  Did I mention there was no stenographer in the room?


"Andrew Mack a US citizen who"

"STOP"  he scrawled away.


"the state charges with attempting to illegally import"

"STOP"  you could almost see his lips moving as he wrote out the words.

Holy shit I thought.  Haven't these guys ever heard of a tape recorder?  This was going to take forever--  and it did.  Two and a half days.  Even the peering faces outside grew bored and went to more exciting past times, like napping in the courtyard.  This was about the most tedious and boring experience of my life, and I know tedium.  But I dared not look bored or show expression.  I just sat there and took it.

But it turned out Bernie was pretty good.  He let the prosecutor go on and on.  And on some more.

We had some witnesses, like the Customs Agent kid who confiscated the ammunition.  Bernie let them tell their side of the story at great length, and I wondered if we just listened to this claptrap without comment.  But then he began to unveil the defense.

The key Customs document was signed by Jeffrey, the only authorized Customs Agent in Goroka.  As it turned out Jeffrey was in Lae, about 8 hours away by road, when the shipment was confiscated.  He never saw the shipment.  The document with his signature had been one of many blanks left already signed for the kid to use. 

Jeffrey was called in to confirm his whereabouts and he was not looking too happy.  This could be the end of his cushy job as the only Customs Agent in Goroka.  Yes, he sheepishly admitted.  He was not there and never saw the ammunition.  Yes, he was away often and left signed documents for the kid.

The AirNiugini baggage handler was called in.  Had he seen the ammunition?
No, he only saw the customs declaration and informed the kid about it.

The kid was up again.  Could he describe the ammunition?

"Well it was a heavy box, like ammunition."

Bernie, "What color were the shells?  Were they brass?"

"Ummm... I'm not sure."  The kid was starting to squirm a little.

"Ummm.... I did not need to see them, the declaration said ammunition."

Bernie, "Well it is possible the declaration was wrong.  I think we need to confirm just what is in box in question.  The prosecutor should show the court the contraband."

Prosecutor, "Ummm.... You Honour, it recently came to the prosecution's attention that the ammunition in question has gone missing from the police vault."

Remember, all this was punctuated with STOP and resume every few words, it unfurled slowly like a rose opening in the morning dew.  And Bernie was not rushing it at all.   Had I been in Bernie's wig, in the first hour I'd have jumped up and said the prosecution had lost the evidence.  But Bernie knew what he was doing.  I could see the judge slowly becoming more and more annoyed with the prosecution.  No one likes to have their time wasted, even a judge with deliberate penmanship.  And it was shaping up after two days that this was exactly what the prosecution was doing, wasting the judge's time.

Bernie, "It seems that no one saw the contraband in question.  There is no contraband to present.  In fact the only thing to suggest there ever was any contraband was a declaration filled out by the defendant.  His only crime might be misunderstanding the PNG declaration form. 

For a moment I was afraid I would have to testify what was in my box, but I guess that either could not be done, or it did not matter, since the only relevant testimony would be mine.

After two days, I felt like it was looking like a slam dunk.  The prosecutor was looking a bit like "How am I going to explain this to my boss."

On day three we reconvened for the judge's decision.  This was the first oration that was not punctuated with STOPS since he was reading his own document.  The verdict-- there was insufficient evidence of a crime and charges were dropped. 

Things in PNG often work in ways that are invisible to foreigners like me.  I have many friends in Goroka who knew of my problems with the law.  Did one of my friends have a friend in the police department that helped the ammo go missing?  Maybe even Bernie, who never seemed worried.  Certainly no one ever gave me a wink wink, nudge nudge, don't you worry.  Quite possibly someone was looking out for me.

Was the ammo stolen for resale?  Possibly and that could be troubling except these weren't ordinary shells.  I can imagine some raskol criminal rigging up a .410 to rob people and find it only stings and pisses off their first victim.  Or maybe some hapless hunter would try to shoot a pig and find themselves with an angry pig.  Those shells were lethal to small birds at close range, not much else.

I never did get to do the collecting as hoped.  We managed with nets and long weeks of effort.  The data were good and have since been published.  But when you read the methods section of the paper, you won't get a real idea of what we went through to get our samples.

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