news from ekklesia

By staff writers
March 22, 2004

UK to rule on Caribbean death penalty

-22/3/04

Christian campaigners against the death penalty could breathe a huge sigh of relief, if hundreds of death row prisoners in Trinidad, Barbados and Jamaica win a reprieve following an unprecedented privy council hearing beginning in London today.

The hearing could rule that the mandatory death penalty for murder is unconstitutional.

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

Some observers argue that it should be for the countries' parliaments, and not distant judges, to decide whether the mandatory death sentence should be abolished.

The case is seen as so important that the privy council - the final court of appeal for the Caribbean and some other former British colonies, but made up mainly of UK law lords - which normally sits in panels of five, has decided to field nine judges for the first time.

The large cast of judges and lawyers means that the case cannot be heard as usual in the privy council building in Downing Street, but will be argued over six days in the Moses Room in the Palace of Westminster.

The role of the privy council as the final court of appeal for some former British colonies dates back to 1625. Caribbean countries have resolved to replace it with their own Caribbean court of justice, but its gestation has been prolonged by political disagreements.

The nine-judge panel for today's appeal will be headed by Lord Bingham, the senior law lord. He will be joined by seven other law lords - Lords Steyn, Rodger, Hope, Hoffmann, Nicholls, Walker and Scott - and a senior judge from Jamaica, Edward Zacca.

In a privy council case last year Lords Bingham, Steyn and Walker ruled that the mandatory death penalty was unconstitutional. In the same case Lord Rodger was one of two judges who disagreed.

In his judgment in that case Lord Steyn said: "The constitution itself has placed on an independent, neutral and impartial judiciary the duty to construe and apply the constitution and statutes, and protect guaranteed fundamental rights, where necessary.

"It is not a responsibility which the courts may shirk or attempt to shift to parliament."

The appeal is the culmination of a strategy deployed over the last six years by English lawyers working free of charge on behalf of Caribbean death row inmates.

The campaign has been spearheaded by the London law firm Simons Muirhead and Burton, which represents three of the four men appealing, Charles Matthews, from Trinidad, and Lennox Boyce and Jeffrey Joseph, from Barbados.

The fourth man, Lambert Watson, from Jamaica, is represented by the City law firm Allen & Overy.

Three leading English QCs, Nicholas Blake, Edward Fitzgerald and Keir Starmer are appearing without charge on behalf of the four death row inmates.

If they succeed, up to 300 prisoners on death row in the three countries will have to have their sentences reviewed. The death penalty will not be abolished but will be limited to the most serious cases, and will no longer be the automatic penalty for murder.

The mandatory death penalty has already gone in the eastern Caribbean, following a ruling in 2001 by the Eastern Caribbean court of appeal, sitting in St Vincent, that the automatic imposition of the death penalty without any judicial discretion amounts to cruel and inhuman punishment.

This was the first time that a domestic Caribbean court declared the mandatory death penalty unconstitutional.

In 2002, the privy council upheld that judgment in three cases from St Lucia, Belize and St Kitts and sent the prisoners back to courts in their own countries for resentencing.

UK to rule on Caribbean death penalty

-22/3/04

Christian campaigners against the death penalty could breathe a huge sigh of relief, if hundreds of death row prisoners in Trinidad, Barbados and Jamaica win a reprieve following an unprecedented privy council hearing beginning in London today.

The hearing could rule that the mandatory death penalty for murder is unconstitutional.

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

Some observers argue that it should be for the countries' parliaments, and not distant judges, to decide whether the mandatory death sentence should be abolished.

The case is seen as so important that the privy council - the final court of appeal for the Caribbean and some other former British colonies, but made up mainly of UK law lords - which normally sits in panels of five, has decided to field nine judges for the first time.

The large cast of judges and lawyers means that the case cannot be heard as usual in the privy council building in Downing Street, but will be argued over six days in the Moses Room in the Palace of Westminster.

The role of the privy council as the final court of appeal for some former British colonies dates back to 1625. Caribbean countries have resolved to replace it with their own Caribbean court of justice, but its gestation has been prolonged by political disagreements.

The nine-judge panel for today's appeal will be headed by Lord Bingham, the senior law lord. He will be joined by seven other law lords - Lords Steyn, Rodger, Hope, Hoffmann, Nicholls, Walker and Scott - and a senior judge from Jamaica, Edward Zacca.

In a privy council case last year Lords Bingham, Steyn and Walker ruled that the mandatory death penalty was unconstitutional. In the same case Lord Rodger was one of two judges who disagreed.

In his judgment in that case Lord Steyn said: "The constitution itself has placed on an independent, neutral and impartial judiciary the duty to construe and apply the constitution and statutes, and protect guaranteed fundamental rights, where necessary.

"It is not a responsibility which the courts may shirk or attempt to shift to parliament."

The appeal is the culmination of a strategy deployed over the last six years by English lawyers working free of charge on behalf of Caribbean death row inmates.

The campaign has been spearheaded by the London law firm Simons Muirhead and Burton, which represents three of the four men appealing, Charles Matthews, from Trinidad, and Lennox Boyce and Jeffrey Joseph, from Barbados.

The fourth man, Lambert Watson, from Jamaica, is represented by the City law firm Allen & Overy.

Three leading English QCs, Nicholas Blake, Edward Fitzgerald and Keir Starmer are appearing without charge on behalf of the four death row inmates.

If they succeed, up to 300 prisoners on death row in the three countries will have to have their sentences reviewed. The death penalty will not be abolished but will be limited to the most serious cases, and will no longer be the automatic penalty for murder.

The mandatory death penalty has already gone in the eastern Caribbean, following a ruling in 2001 by the Eastern Caribbean court of appeal, sitting in St Vincent, that the automatic imposition of the death penalty without any judicial discretion amounts to cruel and inhuman punishment.

This was the first time that a domestic Caribbean court declared the mandatory death penalty unconstitutional.

In 2002, the privy council upheld that judgment in three cases from St Lucia, Belize and St Kitts and sent the prisoners back to courts in their own countries for resentencing.

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