Law: A Fight to the Death ; Lawyers Are Challenging a Privy Council Ruling That Allows Capital Punishment in the Caribbean. Robert Verkaik Reports
Verkaik, Robert, The Independent (London, England)
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 British court.
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 "bitterly disappointing".
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 offender."
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. …