Jamaica Death Penalty Abolished in Court Ruling


Britain’s Privy Council has ruled that Jamaica’s mandatory death penalty for murder convictions was unconstitutional.

But the Privy Council, which serves as the highest appeal court for many former British colonies, found today that automatic death sentences for convicted murderers did not violate the constitutions of Barbados and Trinidad.

The Council reversed its 2003 ruling that Trinidad’s mandatory death penalty for murder convictions was unconstitutional.

But the Privy Council said it would substitute a sentence of life imprisonment for anyone under the death sentence in Trinidad, arguing it would be unfair to deprive them of the benefit of last year’s ruling.

The Privy Council was considering appeals against death sentences by four convicted murderers: Lambert Watson in Jamaica, Lennox Ricardo Boyce and Jeffrey Joseph in Barbados, and Charles Matthew in Trinidad.

The Privy Council sat as a panel of nine judges, including eight English law lords and one Caribbean judge, Edward Zacca.

They ruled that Jamaica’s automatic death sentence for convicted murderers was inconsistent with section 17(1) of that country’s constitution, which provides that “no person shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading punishment or other treatment”.

The judges found that “basic humanity requires that the appellant should be given an opportunity to show why the sentence of death should not be passed on him”.

The ruling left it open to judges in Jamaica to impose the death sentence or a lesser penalty, depending on the relevant circumstances.

The judges ordered that Watson’s death sentence be set aside and that his case be sent back to the Supreme Court of Jamaica to decide what sentence should be pronounced. Watson was convicted five years ago of the 1997 murder of his daughter Georgina Watson and her mother Eugenie Samuels.

The Privy Council ruled by a majority of 5-4 that the mandatory death sentence for convicted murderers did not breach the constitutions of Barbados or Trinidad.

It found that the constitutions protected individuals from “inhuman or degrading punishment” or “cruel and unusual treatment or punishment”.

But it also found that both documents had provisions protecting laws already existing at the time the constitutions were written – such as those instituting the automatic death penalty for murderers – from being invalidated by the constitutions.

JAMAICA: UK limits Jamaica death sentence

 The mandatory death penalty for murder in Jamaica was abolished yesterday, winning a reprieve for more than 60 prisoners on death row, in a historic judgment from 9 judges sitting in London.

But the penalty will remain in force in Trinidad and Barbados after the same judges, by a majority of 5 to 4, ruled that the clear wording of those countries' constitutions barred them from interfering to strike it down.

The appeals to the Privy Council on behalf of 4 death row inmates were considered so important that the court - the final court of appeal for the Caribbean and some other former British colonies, but made up mainly of UK law lords - sat as a panel of 9 judges for the 1st time. It normally sits in panels of 5.

Most countries in the Caribbean have popular majorities which support the mandatory death penalty as a deterrent to violent crime. The possibility of its abolition by a bench composed overwhelmingly of white judges thousands of miles away is a highly sensitive issue.

The 9-judge panel was headed by Lord Bingham, senior law lord. He was joined by 7 other law lords - Lords Steyn, Rodger, Hope, Hoffmann, Nicholls, Walker and Scott - and a senior judge from Jamaica, Edward Zacca.

The appeal was on behalf of 4 death row prisoners, Charles Matthews, from Trinidad, Lennox Boyce and Jeffrey Joseph from Barbados, and Jamaican Lambert Watson. 3 leading English QCs, Nicholas Blake, Edward Fitzgerald and Keir Starmer, argued their cases free of charge.

The 4 men argued that there were mitigating factors in their cases which could not be taken into account by judges, who had no choice but to impose the death penalty once they were convicted of murder.

Matthews was sentenced to death in 1999 for killing his former lover out of jealousy. The same year, Watson received the death sentence for stabbing to death his 9-month-old daughter and her mother. Boyce and Joseph were jointly convicted in 2002 of the murder of Marquelle Hippolyte, 22.

The men's lawyers argued that the automatic death penalty, which precludes the possibility of individual mitigation, amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment, and breaches the Caribbean countries' constitutions and their international obligations.

The majority of 5 judges, led by Lord Hoffmann, held that they were constrained by the wording of the constitutions of Trinidad and Barbados, which differ from the Jamaican constitution. The minority of 4, led by Lord Bingham, would have abolished the automatic death penalty.

The judgment overturns a Privy Council ruling in November 2003 that the automatic death penalty is unconstitutional in Trinidad.

But the judges yesterday reprieved more than 100 prisoners now on death row in Trinidad, ruling it would be unfair to deprive them of the benefit of the earlier ruling.

In countries where the mandatory death penalty has been struck down, courts are still free to impose it but only for the most serious cases. It has already gone in the eastern Caribbean, following a ruling in 2001 by the Eastern Caribbean court of appeal, that the automatic imposition of the death penalty without any judicial discretion amounts to cruel and inhuman punishment.

In 2002, the Privy Council upheld that judgment in 3 cases from St Lucia, Belize and St Kitts, and sent the prisoners concerned back to courts in their own countries for resentencing.

(source: The Guardian)


UNITED KINGDOM: Judges uphold ex-colonies' death penalty


British judges have upheld the right of 2 Caribbean countries to impose mandatory death sentences for murder, in a judgment widely attacked by human rights lawyers.

A special panel of 9 judges hearing the appeal of three men convicted of murder, said the abolition of the death penalty was a matter for the parliaments of Trinidad and Tobago, and of Barbados. But in the cases before their panel, the 3 men's sentences should be commuted to life imprisonment.

The ruling was criticised yesterday as a missed opportunity to end the death penalty in the Caribbean.

The Privy Council, sitting as the final Court of Appeal of Trinidad and of Barbados, ruled that mandatory death penalty laws should remain in force. The majority judgment could not have been narrower - five law lords, led by Lord Hoffmann, voted to retain the mandatory death penalty while four, led by Lord Bingham of Cornhill, voted to abolish it. In a separate ruling the judges ended the mandatory death penalty in Jamaica.

The right of appeal to the Privy Council is a colonial hangover from the days Britain ruled these Caribbean countries.

The judges acknowledged the death penalty was "objectionable" and reflected the medieval common law of England. They said: "In Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados these laws have remained, in all essentials, unchanged. In Jamaica the law was changed, because the inhumanity of requiring the death penalty to be imposed on all defendants convicted of murder was recognised."

In reaching its decision the Privy Council recognised the high incidence of murder and the widespread use of firearms in Jamaica and other Caribbean countries.

The law lords said: "So long as those conditions prevail, and so long as a discretionary death sentence is retained, it may well be that judges in Jamaica will find it necessary, on orthodox sentencing principles, to impose the death sentence in a proportion of cases which is, by international standards, unusually high.

But they added: "Prevailing levels of crime and violence, however great the anxiety and alarm they understandably cause, cannot affect the underlying legal principle... that no one, whatever his crime, should be condemned to death without an opportunity to try and persuade the sentencing judge that he does not deserve to die."