The Privy Council has been asked to overturn the decision of the local Court of Appeal to rule that automatic life sentences given to murder convicts, who cannot be executed due to delays in their appeals, were unconstitutional.
Presenting submissions before the United Kingdom-based appellate court, yesterday morning, attorneys representing the State claimed that Chief Justice Ivor Archie and two Appeal Court Judges got it wrong in 2018 when they ruled that High Court Judges have the discretion to decide commuted sentences based on the particular circumstances of each case.
The appeal centres around the Privy Council’s well-known 1994 ruling in the Jamaican case of Pratt and Morgan, in which it ruled that the mandatory death penalty for murder would be cruel and inhumane punishment if it was not be carried out within five years of conviction.
The lawsuit was brought by convicted murderer Naresh Boodram on behalf of 82 prisoners, who like him had their mandatory death penalty commuted to life imprisonment following the legal precedent set in almost three decades ago.
British Queen’s Counsel Howard Stevens, who led the State’s legal team, claimed that the Court of Appeal did not have the discretion to impose any sentence other than life imprisonment on the prisoners whose sentences were commuted.
Stevens claimed that as the death penalty was mandatory without the issue of delay, there should also be a standard commuted sentence.
“Parliament has decided that all murderers deserve to die regardless of the offence they committed,” Stevens said.
He noted that prisoners aggrieved by the blanket sentence had an alternate remedy as they could apply to the Mercy Committee for the President to use his/her power of pardon under the Constitution. Stevens also claimed that based on the grievous circumstances of the double murder Boodram is convicted of he deserved a life sentence.
In his submissions, attorney Mark Seepersad disagreed with the position, which he suggested limited the local courts’ jurisdiction to address breaches of citizens’ constitutional rights through Section 14 of the Constitution. Seepersad claimed that when the Privy Council applied the life sentence in the Pratt and Morgan case, it never intended for it to apply to all subsequent cases, which benefited from the legal precedent set.
“If the Privy Council intended to lay down an expressed fetter on discretion it would have required the clearest of words,” Seepersad said, as he noted that there is no law prescribing the life sentence. He noted that while the life sentence was blanketly applied over the past decades, Boodram’s case was the first in which the policy was challenged. While Seepersad accepted that the life sentence could be applied in some heinous cases he suggested that it should only be done after a Judge considers all the unique circumstances of the case and the offender.
“I must admit that there may be some instances where the nature of the offence and the offender may require that he should be removed from society for the rest of his natural life,” Seepersad said. While Boodram is claiming that the Court of Appeal was correct in the substantive aspects of his case, he has filed a cross-appeal seeking to overturn its ruling that he and the State should bear their own legal costs for the appeal despite his legal victory.
Presenting submissions on the issue, the State’s legal team indicated that it would not seek costs from Boodram if it is successful on the appeal. It also claimed that if Boodram is successful in the cross-appeal he should only be paid the legal costs for the appeal before the Court of Appeal and not the Privy Council as he is being represented pro bono in the latter.
Seepersad is expected to address the issue when he continues his submissions later today. Boodram was convicted in November 1996 for the murders of Anthony Greenidge and Stephen Sandy, who were killed and buried in a shallow grave in a rice field.
Delivering the judgement in the case in March 2018, Chief Justice Archie and Appellate Judges Alice Yorke-Soo Hon and Mark Mohammed ruled that there was no logical reason for the carte blanche imposition of the life sentence as they suggested the policy was inherently arbitrary and potentially disproportionate. w“The circumstances of each murder are different and a court properly seized of the relevant facts would be able to substitute the appropriate sentence,” Archie said. Despite the ruling in the case, the Court of Appeal did not immediately re-sentence Boodram and the others to set prison terms as it referred their cases to be considered by several High Court Judges.
“A re-sentencing court must ascertain whether the punitive element of the sentence has been satisfied and also whether the appellant (Boodram) has been rehabilitated and is safe for reintegration into society. To ascertain the latter, the court has to be provided with evidence that would answer the question in the affirmative or negative,” Archie said.
The re-sentencing exercise has been put on hold pending the outcome of the final appeal before the Privy Council.