Features — 04 February 2017 — by Rowland A. Parks
A cruel prison sentence for one youthful indiscretion

BELIZE CITY, Wed. Feb. 1, 2017–Belize’s criminal justice system suffers from a monumental flaw of insufficient legal representation. There are not sufficient attorneys at the Legal Aid office. In fact, the Legal Aid office, located near the end of Albert Street, in Belize City, has less than six attorneys to spread across the entire country.

With many of the laws of Belize in need of revision, the applications of some of the archaic laws are sometimes in conflict with some of the protection enshrined in the Constitution of Belize.

Due to the inadequacy of legal representation, many citizens who cannot afford an attorney appear in court on a wide range of indictable offences defenseless and have to face off with trained attorneys — experienced prosecutors.

That is what happened in February 2011, in the Southern Session of the Supreme Court where a minor, 15 years and 5 months old, who was a third form student at the time, was tried, convicted and sentenced to the mandatory minimum sentence of 12 years in prison for unlawful carnal knowledge of a girl who was 13 at the time of the sexual act.

Yesterday, the Belize Court of Appeal granted bail to Juan Duenas, the young man who was convicted of the carnal knowledge charge and who has spent roughly 6 years out of the 12 years sentence that Justice John “Troadio” Gonzalez was bound by law to impose.

Attorney Simeon Sampson, SC, who is a former president of Belize Human Rights Commission, filed for an appeal of the sentence and conviction in 2011. The court papers, however, appeared to have been lost and so the minor was left to continue serving the sentence the court imposed.

Sampson fell ill last year and had to leave the jurisdiction, but attorney Anthony Sylvestre took an interest in the appeal and held brief for Sampson.

At an in-chamber hearing on Tuesday, Appeal Justice Minet Hafiz heard a bail application for Duenas, whom the Court of Appeal released on a $5,000 bail. Sampson, the lead attorney for the appeal, said that he believes that the appeal had a good prospect of succeeding; otherwise, the court would not have granted his client bail.

Interestingly, the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions did not raise any objection to granting Duenas bail.

Sampson told Amandala that the bail was granted with the usual conditions; he is to report to the Punta Gorda Police Station every Monday.

Sylvester explained that for an appellate court to grant bail to a convicted person, the person must show exceptional circumstances.

Sylvestre made reference to the appeal of Gregory August last year in which the court of Appeal struck down the mandatory sentence of life in prison for murder. “It is along those grounds that we are approaching this appeal, that the 12-year sentence should never have been applied,” he said.

“He was a minor at the time and he and the complainant were attending the same school, Toledo Community College,” Sylvestre pointed out.

He added, “Such a sentence does highlight the egregious nature of having mandatory minimum sentences. The law does not set any particular age for these minimum sentences, which is ridiculous.”

Sylvestre also said that he is of the view that the court is constrained to rule in their favor, having regard to their decision in the Gregory August ruling.

“When you pass a sentence without looking at the facts, that is a cruel and inhumane sentence,” Sylvestre said.

“The court was not even allowed to look at the fact that this young man was a child himself. They were two children who were engaged in a youthful indiscretion,” Sylvestre said, summing up the whole sorry situation.

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