KINGSTON, Jamaica - Claudette Johnson still has a hard time sleeping at night a decade after her son was fatally shot in a confrontation with Jamaican police and 15 years after her taxi driver husband was murdered by gunmen. Year after year, both cases have collected dust in the island's gridlocked court system, leaving her in limbo. Meanwhile, she's grimly tracked the men she believes are responsible for the killings of her loved ones, even as witnesses have vanished and memories have grown murky.
"Lord, it hurts. You can wait forever for justice here," Johnson said in an outdoor Kingston market where she scrapes out a living selling secondhand clothing from a sun-baked wooden stall. Her exasperation with the sluggish pace of Caribbean justice reflects what many say is a regional crisis.
While the Caribbean is known to most visitors as a vacation paradise, the backlog in overburdened courts has soared as crime statistics show homicide rates nearly doubling in several countries since 1995. At the same time, underfunded and inefficient courts have failed to keep up with the punishing caseloads, stalling lives and even acting as a disincentive for foreign investment. In some countries, thousands of defendants have languished in decrepit lockups for years without trial.
Perhaps nowhere is the problem more marked than in Jamaica, which is struggling to whittle down a crushing number of old criminal cases. With even basic statistical data on the flow of cases lacking, most officials have long put the court backlog at over 400,000 on the island of 2.7 million people, although some justice officials now say the number is closer to 200,000. Whatever the full tally, authorities uniformly agree that the sprawling backlog is a big problem, with opposition leader and former Prime Minister Andrew Holness likening it to a "cancer in the core of the nation."
The conviction rate for murders is just 5 percent in Jamaica. As a result, islanders believe killers routinely go unpunished in a country with among the world's highest murder rates, and deadly vigilante justice against people suspected in crimes is a fairly regular occurrence.
The Caribbean's woes are emblematic of problems across the Americas. The overwhelming majority of murders in countries such as Brazil, Venezuela and Honduras go unpunished. And in 2009, at the height of drug battles in Mexico's Ciudad Juarez, 2,600 people were slain but only 19 convicted of homicide.
The delays have even hit justice systems in relatively wealthy Caribbean nations such as the Bahamas and Barbados. Experts say postponements are often granted by judges for the flimsiest of reasons and there's no shortage of defense lawyers who benefit. Officials complain that a culture of delays has become chronic in courtrooms.
For Johnson, government pledges to improve the system ring hollow. Like many other impoverished Jamaicans, she's convinced the system is rigged against her. "In this country," she said, holding a photo of her slain 21-year-old son, "justice is never for the poor."