BELIZE CITY, Mon. Apr. 20, 2015–The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), this morning, gave its nod of approval to Gregory August, agreeing to hear his application as “a poor person,” to challenge his conviction for the 2009 murder of Alvin Alpheus Robinson, 73, for which August was sentenced to life behind bars.
However, the CCJ will not begin its hearing until the Court of Appeal has had a chance to deliberate on a very critical dimension of the case – a claim advanced by August’s attorney, Eamon Courtenay, SC, asserting that the life sentence handed down to August back in 2012, which under Belize laws means that he cannot get parole, is unconstitutional.
The Court of Appeal had ruled in February 2015 that it would uphold the conviction of the lower court. Courtenay takes over at the CCJ level from Anthony Sylvester, who represented August at the Court of Appeal, and Courtenay plans to argue at the CCJ that his client was wrongly convicted.
In a historic sitting held in Belize City this morning, inside the courtroom of Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin, a 5-member panel of CCJ justices heard both parties before deciding to admit August’s appeal.
CCJ President, Justice Dennis Byron, expressed his concern, in this morning’s session, that the constitutional issues had not been adequately addressed by the lower court.
Not only will August’s appeal be the first criminal appeal the CCJ will hear from Belize, under its appellate jurisdiction; August’s case will also test a critical question for more than 30 inmates serving life sentences at the Belize Central Prison.
Last November, legal experts in Belize in collaboration with the Death Penalty Project of the UK, which assisted in drafting papers for August’s appeal, unveiled a set of far-reaching recommendations in the document: Behind the Prison Gates: Findings and Recommendations from a Visit by Joseph Middleton to Belize Central Prison.
One of the recommendations made in the Middleton report is that “litigation be initiated, where appropriate, to challenge mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole, where it applies.”
That report indicated that there were, at the time, 33 inmates serving sentences of life imprisonment (‘lifers’), and at least one person serving a life sentence for murder was a minor when the offence was committed.
The report notes that all but one of the inmates convicted of murder are serving life sentences, with Adolph Harris, who had his death sentence commuted to 20 years’ imprisonment, being the exception.
Behind the Prison Gate notes that, “After a change to the Prison Rules in 2002, inmates convicted of murder can never be eligible for parole, whatever their sentence. If sentenced to a determinate sentence, prisoners may be eligible for remission [or discharge ‘by good conduct and industry’].”
The report added that, after the mandatory death sentence was ruled unconstitutional in the case of Reyes versus the Queen, the Prison Rules were amended to the effect that offenders convicted of murder were ineligible for parole. It also explained that inmates serving a life sentence for murder, or any other offence, cannot meet this requirement, and, therefore, are ineligible for remission.
Courtenay affirmed in appearing before the CCJ today that the question of whether a life sentence for murder, which does not allow for parole under Belize laws, is constitutional was never addressed at the Court of Appeal in his client’s case. The CCJ, after deliberating on the matter, decided that the Court of Appeal should be asked to look at this issue before the CCJ proceeds.
Courtenay specifically cited Section 7 of the Belize Constitution, which says that no person should be subject to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
“Now, here is a young man [in his twenties] who has been sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole,” said Courtenay, adding that “…it is unconstitutional, cruel and inhuman, to send somebody to prison who has changed his or her life, completely reformed, completely rehabilitated…” and to deny him or her parole.
He also pointed to the Belize Advisory Council rules, saying that the existing parole rules do not provide any avenue for August to change his life and to reform.
Courtenay confirmed that it is the first time the courts of Belize will deliberate on this question of constitutionality of the life sentence, under which no parole is possible. However, he told us that the matter has been ventilated before the European Court of Human Rights and the Privy Council, in a case originating out of Mauritius, where the life sentence, which also did not allow for parole there, was deemed to be contrary to Section 3 of the European Charter on Human Rights.
“Our Section 7, we think, is very close to that and therefore we think it should be persuasive,” Courtenay told the press this morning.
Article 3 of the European Charter on Human Rights, captioned, “Prohibition of Torture”, says that, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
In the Privy Council case of Roger F.P. de Boucherville versus the State of Mauritius, for which a decision was handed down in July 2008, the court ruled that both the death penalty (imposed in 1986) and the mandatory life sentence, imposed after the death penalty was abolished in Mauritius in 1995, were unconstitutional.
The previously cited prison report, Behind Prison Gates says that, “There is a strong argument that irreducible life sentences violate the prohibition of inhuman and degrading punishment under Belize’s Constitution and its obligations under international law.”
Whereas the Gregory August case will be precedent-setting, in that it is expected to resolve the question of whether life sentences without possibility for parole are constitutional, Courtenay said that it will also help to clarify the law on the use of circumstantial evidence, upon which his client was convicted.
He said that the CCJ would hopefully provide guidance to all Belize’s courts on these critical issues.
The CCJ directed that the notice of appeal in the Gregory August case should be filed within 14 days. It proposed to issue a draft order to the parties this afternoon and it has scheduled a case management session for Tuesday, April 21.
The crown was represented today by Director of Public Prosecutions, Cheryl-Lynn Vidal, SC.
The panel of 5 CCJ justices included Justice Dennis Byron, CCJ president, and Justices Winston Anderson, Adrian Saunders, Jacob Wit and Maureen Rajnauth-Lee, whose very first appearance as CCJ judge was made here in Belize.