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Bigamy - do the penalties match the crime?

Published:Monday | October 27, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Bigamy is a crime. This fact is so well known that one is left to wonder whether it is simply forgotten by those who commit the crime. Or, is it that they believe they will not be caught or that if the truth comes to light they will not really face any punishment?

While there is no report as to why he did it, one Englishman, Maurice Gibney, was reminded that criminal sanctions flow from not getting divorced from your first wife before marrying someone new. At the very least, he now knows that he will get a tremendous amount of adverse publicity when he is caught. The report in the Daily Mail and from other online UK sources about the trial of Maurice Gibney confirms why Hollywood and networks such as Lifetime will always be able to find material for the next film.

Yvonne, an English nurse, married Maurice, a land surveyor, 17 years ago. Together, they raised two boys, one of whom was Yvonne?s son from a previous union, and the second the only product of their marriage. Although the marriage was rocky and there are allegations of spousal and child abuse, neither party had commenced divorce proceedings.

Maurice worked in the oil industry and often travelled for work. According to the report, Yvonne said that as recently as January 2013, Maurice returned home on leave and the entire family stayed in the family home together. Little did she know that after returning to Oman, Maurice went through a ?form of marriage? with Suzanne Prudhoe at the British Embassy on March 30, 2013. The ceremony allegedly cost £45,000.

The manner in which Yvonne discovered Maurice?s crime is testimony to the power of social media. In February 2014, Yvonne learnt that Suzanne had apparently announced her engagement to Maurice on Facebook from as far back as 2012 and later posted pictures of the happy couple kissing on their ?wedding day?. In the face of that evidence, Maurice did the only smart thing with which he can be credited, he pleaded guilty to the charges. The magistrate then sentenced Maurice to six months in prison, suspended for two years.

Under Section 4 of the Matrimonial Causes Act in Jamaica, a bigamous marriage is void and, therefore, subject to being declared a nullity. However, under Section 71 of the Offences Against the Person Act, bigamy is also a crime. It is a felony that is committed when a married person marries someone else while his or her husband or wife is still alive. If convicted, the offender could face a maximum four-year prison sentence, with or without hard labour.

notorious polygamist

Although the victims of bigamy usually want the perpetrator to be punished for his crime, in most cases no custodial sentences are handed down, and the suspended sentences I came across ranged between periods of six and 10 months. Perhaps notorious polygamist Warren Jeffs from Texas might have also gotten off with a light sentence if he had been prosecuted for bigamy rather than for sexually assaulting two young girls aged 12 and 15, whom he claimed to be his ?brides?. At the time of his conviction in 2011, Jeffs was believed to have 78 wives, 24 of whom were under the age of 17 years.

In another interesting case from Texas, a flight instructor married two women and had two homes about 20 miles apart. He spent weekdays with one wife and weekends with the other. He carried on his duplicitous life for three years before being arrested for bigamy. He escaped being prosecuted because of the statute of limitations.

One wonders if the sentences imposed on bigamists indicate that society no longer views bigamy as a serious crime. What do you think?