[Deathpenalty]death penalty news --- worldwide
j_sommer at gmx.net
Mon Jul 19 15:37:39 CDT 2004
death penalty news
July 19, 2004
CARIBBEAN / UNITED KINGDOM:
A fight to the death - Lawyers are challenging a Privy Council ruling that
allows capital punishment in the Caribbean. Robert Verkaik reports
In the days when pirates terrorised the waters of the Caribbean, British
justice was necessarily harsh and persistent law-breakers often ended up
swinging from the gibbet. Three hundred years later the people of these
tropical islands are still subject to the death penalty, a direct colonial
hangover in which British judges continue to have an important role.
For many of the 250 men and women languishing on death row on the islands
of the Caribbean, their only hope of reprieve is an appeal to a group of
privy councillors meeting 4,500 miles away in a small courtroom in Downing
Street. Earlier this month a special panel of the Privy Council gave itself
a historic opportunity to end the mandatory death penalty for Caribbean
defendants convicted of murder. It was an opportunity that human rights
lawyers believe was cruelly spurned. In a landmark ruling the panel
delivered judgments that permit Trinidad and Barbados to continue to
execute anyone convicted of murder.
The appeals concerned cases in which all the defendants had been sentenced
to hang. In Trinidad Charles Matthew, 61, was convicted of killing his
former lover, 22-year-old Louise Gittens. While in Barbados Lennox Boyce
and Jeffrey Joseph were convicted of murder and similarly sentenced to death.
Dismissing their appeals, the judges of the Privy Council ruled it was up
to the parliaments of these Caribbean islands to change the law and not a
In so ruling the court paved the way for a Trinidad court to impose death
sentences on the men responsible for killing former BBC newsreader, Lynette
Lithgow Pearson, who was living in Trinidad. Lynette Lithgow Pearson, 51,
her mother Maggie Lee, 83, and brother-in-law John Cropper, 59, were killed
in a robbery in 2001. Other cases are expected to follow.
The Privy Council judgment drew immediate criticism from human rights
lawyers who have been campaigning for many years to end capital punishment
in the Caribbean. Edward Fitzgerald QC and Keir Starmer QC, two Doughty
Street chambers barristers involved in the appeals, described the ruling as
Their sense of disappointment was exacerbated by the narrow ruling, with
four judges, including Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the senior law lord,
delivering dissenting judgements. The Doughty Street lawyers said: "The
majority in the Privy Council have taken a step wholly inconsistent with
that court's usual, enlightened, approach to human rights.
"Those charged with implementing the criminal law in Trinidad and Barbados
will now be forced to apply laws which are universally acknowledged to be
inhuman. The constitutions of Trinidad and of Barbados were intended to be
read so as to protect human rights, not to deny them. The ruling is
bitterly disappointing both for those on death row and more generally for
the development of the law in the Caribbean."
Andie Lamb, director of Reprieve, the organisation that campaigns against
capital punishment, says that international law requires that the death
penalty should be reserved for only the most serious crimes. "By imposing a
death sentence for all murder convictions the courts are failing to
acknowledge mitigating circumstances, relating either to the offence or the
She says: "In order not to deny an individual their basic human rights
Reprieve is resolute that, even if convicted of murder, they must be
allowed the opportunity to try and persuade the court that a death sentence
might be an inappropriate or disproportionate sentence."
But in the case of Jamaica the Privy Council unanimously accepted that the
imposition of a mandatory death penalty was unconstitutional.
In the appeal, Lambert Watson was convicted in the Hanover Circuit Court of
the Supreme Court of stabbing to death his nine-month-old daughter, Eugenie
Georgina Watson, and her mother. Here the judges distinguished the
constitutions of Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados from that of Jamaica.
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 that there was a very
high incidence of murder and the widespread use of firearms in Caribbean
countries. It 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.
The council added: "Prevailing levels of crime and violence cannot affect
the underlying legal principle at stake, which is 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."
The rulings will help to steady the Privy Council's relationship with the
governments of the Caribbean but it is unlikely to curb the move towards a
new Caribbean Court of Appeal to replace British judges.
There are about 50 men and women under sentence of death by hanging in
Jamaica. Its government will be dismayed that after the Privy Council
ruling they must now review all these cases. Jamaica is regarded as the
driving force to create a new court that will be free from the "meddling"
of the Privy Council. Some fear that the new court will become a "hanging
court". But the initiative reflects the frustrations of the governments of
Caribbean countries where capital punishment is popular with the voting
public who see it as the most effective means of combating violent crime.
Without an independent final court of appeal sited in London, countries
like Trinidad and Barbados would have executed many more prisoners.
Nevertheless, human rights lawyers say Britain'sassociation with this
punishment serves only to condone its use.
Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, in his dissenting judgment of Charles Matthew,
made the point that until 1965 mandatory death sentences for murder existed
in the UK and no one thought them an "unusual or inhumane form of
punishment". But he said: "Times have changed. Human rights values set
higher standards today. Murder can be committed in all manner of
circumstances. In some the death penalty will plainly be excessive and
These changing times are reflected in a landmark judgment in April 2001
when the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal ruled that the mandatory death
penalty is unconstitutional. This judgment was upheld by the Privy Council
in March 2002. As a result, the mandatory death sentence has been outlawed
in Antigua & Barbuda, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, St Kitts & Nevis, St Lucia
and St Vincent & the Grenadines.
The Doughty Street lawyers say the battle against the mandatory death
penalty will go on. Keir Starmer QC will be taking the Barbados case to the
Inter-American Court. And in Trinidad another case is set for the court.
For Lord Nicholls the case for reform is clear. "To condemn every person
convicted of murder to death regardless of the circumstances is a form of
inhumane punishment. A sentence of death which lacks proportionality lacks
(source: The Independent)
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