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Murder convict mounts constitutional challenge to life in prison sentence

BELIZE CITY, Wed. July 15, 2015–A man who has been convicted of murder and who was sentenced to the mandatory life in prison minimum sentence, under the prevailing regime of the law, has become the first convict to challenge the constitutionality of his life in prison without the possibility of parole sentence.

If Gregory August’s appeal against his life sentence succeeds, this would set a precedent on the sentencing of persons convicted of murder in Belize and elsewhere in the Commonwealth jurisdiction.

Following written submissions, oral arguments were made today in appeal #22 of 2012, Gregory August v the Queen in the Court of Appeal. The court will issue its ruling at a future date, its President, Hon. Justice Manuel Sosa, told the parties late this evening when the hearing concluded. Director of Public Prosecution Cheryl-Lynn Vidal argued the Crown’s case. She was assisted by Crown Counsels Shanice Lovell and Portia Staine, while Eamon Courtenay, S.C. argued the case of August, the applicant. Courtenay was assisted by attorney Illana Swift.

In November 2012, a jury in the Supreme Court of Justice Adolph Lucas convicted Gregory August of the May 2009 murder of Alvin Robinson.

Robinson, 73, who was a disabled resident of the 8 1/2 Miles community on the then Western Highway, (now George Price Highway) and who was also blind in one eye, was stabbed multiple times in the head and face in his home.

After a mitigation hearing, Justice Lucas sentenced August to the mandatory minimum life in prison sentence that a murder conviction carries under Belize’s criminal code. The maximum penalty for a murder conviction is death by hanging.

On April 20, the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) convened in Belize and the first criminal case that our country’s highest court agreed to take on is Gregory August’s appeal against his life in prison sentence.

This morning Eamon Courtenay, S.C., August’s attorney, told the Court of Appeal that the CCJ had granted special leave to August and that there is an appeal pending there.

“The CCJ would like the views of this court on the matter, before they proceed to hear the appeal,” Courtenay told the panel of three Appeal justices.

“It would be of benefit to the CCJ if this court would express an opinion on the likely sentence,” Courtenay continued.

In his submission, Courtenay told the court that the sentence was being challenged, because it was contrary to Section 7 of the Constitution.

“We have added a challenge on the basis of Section 6, as well,” said Courtenay.

Courtenay argued that the issue of his client’s good character was not raised during the trial and that a good character direction should have been given to the jury.

“He was a law-abiding citizen who was ready to assist the police, and who, in fact, cooperated and offered no resistance to the police,” Courtenay said.

Courtenay said August had two previous convictions for very minor offenses.

The trial judge imposed a sentence of life in prison on Mr. August, according to the sentencing rules, under which parole is not available.

“Life in prison has the effect of denuding Mr. August,” Courtenay submitted.

Section 7 of the Belize Constitution prohibits a law that has the effect of denuding a person of his human dignity, said Courtenay.

Courtenay further argued that the Belize Advisory Council has never exercised the prerogative of mercy on any life-serving prisoner. While his client was tried by a judge and jury, the sentence imposed was in effect imposed by the legislator behind the rules, Courtenay stated.

“The sentence imposed by Justice Lucas was a tick-tock from the legislator,” Courtenay argued.

After the hearing, Courtenay told reporters, “We made two points. One was that he was entitled to what is called a good character direction and secondly, we said that the sentence imposed on him of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional.”

Courtenay stressed that the good character direction was not given by the trial judge.

“We also raised the question of the sentence – under the criminal code a person who is found guilty of murder and is not sentenced to death is sentenced to a mandatory minimum of life imprisonment without parole.

“Second, Section 7 of the Constitution said that no one is to be subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment. And we say that to submit a person to prison or to commit a person to prison for the rest of his and her life is unconstitutional,” Courtenay said.

Courtenay added, “The point is this, we do not say; Mr. August does not say, that a person should not in an appropriate case be sentenced to life imprisonment. What we do say and say very strongly is that the Constitution requires a sentence to be imposed by a judge. It requires the judge to look at all the circumstances, the facts of the case, the circumstances in which the murder was committed. It looks at the antecedent – is this a bad person?

“Did they have a previous criminal record? Were they gainfully employed? Do they have a family etc … Then there are a number of issues – there is retribution, there is deterrence and prevention, but there is also rehabilitation and reformation.”

Courtenay further stated, “Mr. August, in this particular case, this offence was committed when he was 19; he was sentenced when he was 24. We say that it is inhuman to say to him for the rest of your life until you die, you are committed to prison. Why do we say that? Because the constitution says no one should be denied his human dignity and if you tell a man that you have nothing more to live for until your death, then you are denuding him of his human dignity, which is at the center of the Belize Constitution.”

“So we say that what is required is a system whereby that sentence of life imprisonment is reviewed. It would be after 10 years, it could be after 15 years, it could be after 25 years. But he must have some hope that if he does good, if he reforms, if he is a model prisoner, there is a possibility that he can come out. I want to make clear that Mr. August’s position is that he should not be convicted of murder; he was wrongly convicted of murder, and that is a matter that the court, the CCJ, is going to decide,” Courtenay said.

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