Tue | Sep 18, 2018

Mercy, please: Man serving life sentence on a judge's error begs Sir Patrick for clemency

Published:Monday | July 28, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Sir Patrick Allen

Barbara Gayle, Justice Coordinator

A senior citizen has been languishing in prison for the past 21 years because of an error a judge made in 1993.

The judge had ordered William Purcell, then 37 years old, to serve a mandatory life sentence for gun offences, although there was an amendment to the law in the 1980s for specific years of imprisonment to be given for such offences.

Last September, Purcell, then 58 years old, wrote to Governor General Sir Patrick Allen outlining his plight and pleading for mercy, but his plea has not yet been answered.

Queen's Counsel K. Churchill Neita, on hearing of the situation from a man who was recently released from prison, contacted Purcell and interviewed him.

On July 11, Neita wrote to the governor general asking him to request the local Privy Council to consider remitting Purcell's sentence of life imprisonment.

Purcell was found guilty on December 13, 1978, of illegal possession of firearm and robbery with aggravation and sentenced to a mandatory life imprisonment.

However, there was change to the law in the 1980s, which abolished the mandatory sentence. The amendment to the law paved the way for the review of the cases of more than 400 prisoners, who were serving mandatory life sentences for gun offences.

Neita outlined in the letter to the governor general that it was his instructions that Purcell did not benefit from the review exercise. On July 31, 1987, Purcell was granted parole.

However, while on parole, Purcell was convicted in February 1993 for illegal possession of firearm and robbery with aggravation and was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment, which expired in 2002.

During the sentencing hearing in 1993, it was brought to the court's attention that Purcell had violated his parole. The judge ordered that he should also serve the mandatory life imprisonment for the offences for which he was convicted and sentenced in 1978.

"In summary, Mr Purcell remains in custody based on his conviction of illegal possession of firearm on December 13, 1978," Neita outlined in the letter to the governor general.

Neita emphasised that given the current status of the law and based on computation and instructions from Purcell, he would have spent 30 years from the time of the first offence.

Neita told The Gleaner that between 1981 and 1982, he was one of the persons agitating for the change of the Gun Court legislation for specific sentences to be given.


He said when Winston Spaulding became minister of national security and justice, he was instrumental in having the law changed. Neita explained that because Purcell had violated his parole, the judge who sentenced him in 1993 ordered him to continue to serve the sentence of life imprisonment, which was no longer in existence.

Purcell, in his letter last year to the governor general, stated: "Let me hasten to say there are three of us here who are doing life sentences for illegal possession of firearm from the 1970s (Ignatius Barnes, Winston Miles and myself)."

In his plea for mercy and reprieve, he said: "I acknowledge that I have done wrong, of which I am sorry. All my youthful days are gone. I have learnt my lesson and hoping for a second chance."

Purcell said he was happy to report that on June 1, 2001, he was granted home leave for three days.

"Your Excellency, I believe life sentence for illegal possession of firearm is really injustice in any democratic society. I am no longer a threat to society. I have been rehabilitated and am asking that in light of the aforesaid that mercy will be extended in having a reprieve of my sentence. I must agree that I did not utilize the benefits afforded to me in my best interest," Purcell stated in the letter.

Neita has not yet received a response from the governor general in relation to the letter seeking Purcell's release from prison.