TORONTO - Five Grenada police officers accused of beating a Canadian visitor to death in the Caribbean nation more than a year ago are returning to the force after manslaughter charges against them were quashed, lawyers involved in the case said Saturday.
A judge ruled Friday to halt the preliminary inquiry into the death of Oscar Bartholomew, 39, saying a coroner's inquest must be held before the criminal case can proceed, prosecutors and defence attorneys said.
The judge also ordered the officers reinstated and paid back the wages they missed as a result of being suspended because of the charges, said Anselm Clouden, who represents one of the accused.
The officers had been suspended with half-pay while on bail.
But the men could find themselves charged once again — potentially with a more serious offence — if evidence presented at the inquest justifies it, Clouden said.
Unlike inquests in Canada, those in Grenada can return a verdict of murder or manslaughter, leading to criminal charges.
"There are no charges against them now, because the information was quashed, but at the conclusion of the inquest, it is expected that charges would be preferred," he said Saturday in a phone interview from St. George's.
"(The coroner) can recommend that the evidence is such it has crossed the threshold of manslaughter" and warrants a murder charge, he added.
"That is a matter she will have to deliberate upon."
The officers are accused of beating Bartholomew into a fatal coma on Boxing Day 2011 while he was in a cell in the hamlet of St. David's.
Relatives said the altercation occurred after he bear-hugged a plainclothes policewoman he had mistaken for a friend and she yelled, "Rape!''
Bartholomew lived in Toronto but was in his native Grenada to visit family with his wife of 10 years, Dolette Cyr, of Cascapedia-St. Jules, Que.
The Coroner's Act mandates an inquest when someone dies in a public facility, such as a prison, but Grenada's top prosecutor said he believes it's the first time the act has taken precedence over criminal proceedings.
"There is no precedent so far as I am aware, certainly not in Grenada," Christopher Nelson, the Caribbean country's director of prosecutions, said Saturday.
"My view is... the coroner's inquest cannot take precedence over the decision of the prosecuting authorities to lay charges when they think it is possible to do so," he said.
"My view is at least they can both run parallel."
While the final result may be the same, a coroner's inquest takes the matter out of prosecutors' hands, he said.
"The difference is in the coroner's inquest there are no charges, there are no accused persons, it's just a fact-finding inquiry."
Nelson said his office has yet to see the judge's written decision and will decide whether to appeal after reading the document.
But he said an appeal is likely and prosecutors would try to set aside the order quashing the charges.
In the end, Clouden said, those responsible for Bartholomew's death will be held accountable.
"Justice must be done and justice will be done," he said.