Part 3 of 4 in a series: A Trial of Tribulations.
On Monday, July 16, 1973, the trial of Joseph “Midda” Buffonge and George “Fowl” Lee finally got underway – more than nine months after the two were jointly charged with the murder of Town Hill teenager Sarah “Mon” Meade. For the next eight days, the courthouse and its surroundings on Parliament Street in Plymouth would be a spectacle. Those who couldn’t get a seat in the gallery converged outside. Downtown workers played hooky to get a glimpse of the action. School children huddled near the side windows, jostling for the best vantage point as they peeked through the white metal louvers.
John Stanley Weekes, who would later serve as Magistrate and Attorney General, was the court registrar. It was his duty each morning to open the courtroom doors and allow as many members of the public to enter as seating would permit.
“Before I let them in, I would ask them to please enter in an orderly fashion and take their seats,” says Weekes, who now resides in the United Kingdom. “As soon as I open the door, everyone would rush in. I would have to step aside to avoid getting trampled.”
Such was the high interest in a case that would go down as the most memorable in Montserrat history. The Preliminary Inquiry – held four months earlier – featured some bombshell depositions. And now the Assizes Court was set, with the judge, jury, defense attorneys and Crown prosecutor assigned and assembled for the trial.
These were the main legal representatives:
▪ Franklyn Adams, Judge: The St. Kitts native attended law school in Canada. He was a prosecutor during the 1960 trial in Montserrat of Samuel “Lucky Sam” Weekes, who ended up being the last person hanged on the island.
▪ Claude Earl Francis, attorney for Midda Buffonge: The veteran jurist was a two-time Parliamentary representative for Barbuda. His son Ralph was also a prominent lawyer.
▪ Kenneth Allen, attorney for George Lee: Hailing from St. Peter’s in Montserrat, Allen attended the Inns of Court School of Law in London and was called to the bar in 1959.
▪ Desmond Christian, Crown prosecutor: He served on the Georgetown (Guyana) Magistrate’s Court, notably during prosecutions following the Jonestown Massacre in 1978.
MOMENT OF TRUTH
With so much at stake in the trial, precautions were taken to assure the jurors were not influenced. The nine-member, all-male jury was sequestered, coincidentally, at the Coconut Hill Hotel, just yards from the crime scene. Simon Meade was a chef at the hotel during the trial. During an interview in 2007, he explained the protocol.
“There were always two policemen there,” he said. “The jurors would play dominoes and other games. If one of them got up to go to the restroom, the police would make sure that’s where they went. They couldn’t talk to outsiders. Your family couldn’t visit you.”
When the trial began, Christian – the Crown attorney – went full force at the defendants, describing their alleged actions as not just violent but diabolical: “This crime was conceived in iniquity and carried out with the spirit of a demon,” he told the jury.
Christian had developed a reputation in legal circles for being long-winded, but for this case he had a key witness whose testimony would speak volumes. His name: Joseph Buffonge, better known as “Asia Blood”. He was the cousin of Joseph “Midda” Buffonge. That’s correct: the main suspect and the star witness had the same name.
“Asia Blood” was a fisherman and mason who lived in Streatham in eastern Montserrat. His stunning narrative, first disclosed at the Preliminary Inquiry in March, was now presented live for the jury. Here’s a condensed version of his testimony:
A TWISTED TALE
“Asia Blood” was on his boat in Plymouth harbor on Monday, September 25, 1972 – the same day Sarah “Mon” Meade disappeared – when defendant George “Fowl” Lee showed up and beckoned Asia to come ashore. When Asia stepped onto the dock, he also saw Midda and Midda’s father Joe-Joe, the man nicknamed “Look and Laugh” who is also Asia’s uncle. Midda said to him, “You is the man I wanted to see.” Midda then placed a U.S. $50 bill in Asia’s pocket.
Asia was told to meet the three others at Joe-Joe’s home in Town Hill. When he arrived, he says Midda told him: “Asia boy, I have a dead here. I want you to help me.” Midda went into another room and returned holding a pistol. He told Asia he wanted to show him something. The four men went into the bathroom, where Asia says he saw something wrapped in a gray blanket. Midda told him to open the blanket. When he did, Asia says he saw the body of Mon, a girl he recognized from seeing around George Street.
Asia asked Midda what he wanted him to do. Midda explained the plan: “George Fowl” would transport the body on a garbage truck to the rubbish heap at Jumbie Hole. Midda and Asia would then place the body on Asia’s boat, go out to sea and dump it.
Midda arranged a meeting for that night at Shamrock Cinema. But Asia says he never showed up and was chastised by Midda the following morning (Tuesday, September 26). Asia, who says he only agreed to the first meeting after seeing the gun, says Midda then arranged another meeting place to carry out the plan. But Asia again didn’t show up. He says he never saw the men again.
It must be noted that Asia Blood had served time in prison before this incident. The credibility of an ex-convict will always be met with skepticism. But either Asia was telling the truth or he was an extremely creative liar. Some might also wonder why Asia would freely testify against his cousin. A legal expert familiar with the case said it’s possible that police urged him to testify or else he could be considered an accessory to the murder.
Asia’s testimony was deeply damaging for Midda. But it got worse. George Cooper, a fellow prisoner while Midda was remanded, testified that Midda admitted to placing the body where it was found between the Coconut Hill Hotel and the Wall family residence – apparently after the burial-at-sea plan fell through.
As for Lee (George Fowl), he was obviously implicated by Asia’s testimony, but other witnesses also hurt his case. His co-workers on the garbage truck – Henry “Mussolini” Cabey, Beresford “Lord Hailes” Loving and Samuel “Black Sam” Aymer – revealed that Lee spoke early Monday (September 25) about Mon being missing, hours before anyone else – including her parents – knew. They also said that on Wednesday morning (September 27) that the four men were clearing trash from Fort Ghaut when Lee suddenly took off. It is believed that he overheard passersby saying Mon’s body was found.
Lee ended up at the crime scene. Peter “Red Poll” Howson, a popular businessman in Plymouth at the time, testified that he overheard Lee say, “If enough money was paid, you all would not have seen the body.”
The defense attorneys, faced with overwhelming evidence against their clients, tried to capitalize on some timeline inconsistencies. Francis, the attorney for Midda, even suggested that Sarah Meade possibly died from natural causes, and that her injuries were inflicted after death. Mon was a physically fit 16-year-old with no history of health issues. Francis’ far-fetched theory was easily debunked by evidence . . . and common sense.
VERDICT AND TRAGEDY
The trial wrapped up Tuesday, July 24, as counsels for the defense and the Crown, plus Justice Adams, made final summations. At 4:30 p.m., in front of a throng of spectators, the jury foreman revealed a verdict of guilty for Midda Buffonge and George “Fowl” Lee. Adams pronounced the death sentence (by hanging) for both.
At this point the case took an even stranger turn.
As Midda and George Fowl were being perp-walked from the courthouse back to jail, a seemingly unshaken Midda was overheard saying about the judge: “He want me fu heng? A bet you he dead before me.”
Observers said Judge Adams – who was a portly man – appeared fatigued as the case wore on. A few hours after the verdict, Adams, his wife Ruth, and their daughters Debra, Diana and Dahlia, went to dinner at the home of former Chief Minister William H. Bramble, who lived in Groves, about a mile northeast of Plymouth. During the dinner, Adams complained of feeling unwell. The Montserrat Mirror newspaper quoted W.H. Bramble as saying, “As we rose from the table at around 9:30 [p.m.], the Judge said, ‘I feel as though I’m going to fall.’ . . . And down he went.”
Austin Bramble, the son of William H. Bramble, was Montserrat’s Chief Minister at the time. He lived next door to his father. He was summoned to the house. Almost a half century later, he still vividly recalls the surreal atmosphere.
“It was one of the most stressful incidents of my life,” says Bramble, now 91. “When I got there, his body was still there. Mrs. Adams was in real grief. There was crying. My parents were crestfallen. It really shook us up.”
Two doctors were called to the home, but they couldn’t save the 50-year-old Adams. The coroner later arrived. A postmortem at Glendon Hospital revealed that Adams died of “myocardial infarction” – a heart attack.
The following day, Donald Brookes and Eugene Walwyn – Adams’ law partners in St. Kitts – arrived in Montserrat aboard National Airlines to repatriate Adams’ body. Six policemen stood guard and escorted Adams’ body from the terminal at Blackburne Airport to the airplane. Another police guard saluted the aircraft as it became airborne.
Adams’ death shocked the entire region and was now the focus of talk on Montserrat. Some simply attributed his death to obesity and the stressful trial, while others had more cryptic opinions, citing Midda’s bold prediction.
Adams’ death was not only tragic, it affected the case because he had not yet sent his order of execution to Montserrat Governor Willoughby Thompson. It might be a formality, but it is also a legal requirement.
Even before the verdict was read on July 24, Kenneth Allen – attorney for George “Fowl” Lee – told Lee he would appeal if Lee were found guilty. In fact, attorneys for both defendants filed appeals, and the case was heard by the Court of Appeals in October of 1973 at the same courthouse. The acting Chief Justice was P. Cecil Lewis, and the two acting Justices of Appeal were Neville Peterkin and John Renwick.
During the appeals hearing, Francis – Midda’s attorney – argued that his client should be freed based on five different grounds. The only ground that ended up succeeding was the final one, which stated that Buffonge can’t be executed because the judge died before delivering the order to the governor. The other grounds were all rejected and Midda was sentenced to jail for the rest of his natural life.
Ironically, even if Judge Adams had completed the execution order, Midda Buffonge would not have been hanged. Great Britain outlawed capital punishment in 1969, but it was never officially announced in the colonies because authorities wanted the consequence of being hanged to serve as a deterrent.
Allen, Lee’s attorney, argued that the Crown failed to prove its murder case against his client. In essence, just because someone knows a crime has been committed, it doesn’t mean they participated or encouraged the crime.
In hindsight, charging George “Fowl” Lee with murder was probably an overreach, based more on emotion rather than physical evidence. The legal system is one of nuances and technicalities that can be exploited by clever attorneys. A person might be guilty of something – but not what they’re being charged with. Allen also cited a procedural oversight by the judge in the original case, and Lee’s conviction was struck down.
CLOSURE . . . SOMEWHAT
Just like that, a year-long ordeal was over. By this time, the specter of the crime had started to wane, and life in Montserrat – notably Town Hill – had regained some semblance of normalcy. There were no more “lasso” incidents and the main suspect was behind bars.
But there were lingering questions. For one, it remains unclear why Joe-Joe Buffonge, Midda’s father, was never charged even as an accessory. Testimony clearly indicated that he knew about the crime and that Mon’s body was in his home at some point.
Mon’s mother, Sarah Dyett, can’t forget her brief encounter with Joe-Joe Buffonge on the day she went to Plymouth to report her daughter missing. Told that Mon didn’t come home, Joe-Joe said to Mrs. Dyett: “She a go come home man, she a go come home.”
“All that time,” Mrs. Dyett says, “the damage was already done.”