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Privy Council strikes down death sentence

By Theron Boodan Newsday

Trinidad and Tobago may soon have to pull the mandatory death sentence clauses for those convicted of murder off the statute books.

This was the view of Saul Lehrfreund, Human Rights lawyer at the British solicitors firm of Simons Muirhead and Burton, that won a major victory against the "mandatory" death sentence in the Eastern Caribbean (EC) countries and Belize yesterday.

Local human rights lawyers welcomed the rulings yesterday, and were also of the view that soon, the same will apply to T&T.

The mandatory death sentence in the EC and Belize is no longer legal and all death sentences imposed on convicted killers will have to be vacated and re-addressed. This will be in keeping with several rulings of the Judicial Committee of Privy Council yesterday. The remaining countries in the Caribbean, like Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados and the Bahamas, where the death sentence is still mandatory, may soon have to follow suit.

In a series of related landmark decisions delivered yesterday, the Privy Council unanimously struck down the mandatory death sentence of those convicted of murder in the EC and Belize, as being in breach of their respective constitutions.

A similar Trinidad case, Balkissoon Roodial vs The State, in which the legality of the State to impose a mandatory death sentence has been challenged, and was remitted to the Court of Appeal by the Privy Council to deal with the issue. While the mandatory death sentence is in our law books, it is being argued that such a law contradicts the Constitution, violating the right to life.

Lehrfreund believes that sooner or later T&T will have to join the rest of the world and abolish the mandatory death sentence. He said the global consensus is that mandatory death sentence is unsustainable and not in keeping with international human rights laws.

Speaking about the judgements involving the EC and Belize cases in which the Privy Council upheld the judgements of the EC Court of Appeal, Lehrfreund said: "The ramification and consequences of the Privy Council's ruling are huge; there are implications for all those on death row in seven countries and their cases will now have to be reviewed. The implications for future murder trials will be the introduction of a completely new set of procedures restricting the imposition of the death penalty in the first instance. By upholding the decision of the EC Court of Appeal, the Privy Council has gone some way towards ensuring that the law and practice in a number of countries in the Caribbean, conforms with international human rights standards in the application of the death penalty."

The seven countries are: Belize, St Christopher and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, St Lucia, St Vincent, Grenada and Dominica. Lehrfreund said that all death sentences in the EC and Belize will have to be vacated and new sentences re-imposed. He explained that from now on, when a person is convicted of murder in the EC, a special sitting before a judge will have to take place to determine whether or not that person should receive the death sentence or a term of imprisonment instead, and perhaps, reasons for the decision will have to be given. He argued that certain murders do not warrant the death penalty, but in a state where it is mandatory, all are sentenced to death.

Representing the petitioners in the EC cases were British attorneys Edward Fitzgerald QC, James Guthrie QC, Keir Starmer and Julian Knowles, instructed by Simons Muirhead and Burton.

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