Fri | Oct 20, 2017

Disappearing death row

Published:Monday | May 9, 2016 | 12:00 AM

The first dwindling of the death row population began in 1992 when the Offences Against the Person Act was amended.

The amendment paved the way for two categories of murder: capital and non-capital. Capital murder attracted the mandatory death penalty, while for non-capital, the sentence was life imprisonment, but the judge must state how many years the prisoner must serve before he could be eligible for parole. The amendment applied retroactively and resulted in the commutation of sentences of life imprisonment for a large number of convicts.

Parliament was compelled to amend the act in 2005 following the outcome of the Privy Council's landmark ruling in 2004 in the Jamaican case of Lambert Watson, who had challenged the mandatory death sentence. The Privy Council struck down the mandatory death sentence and ruled that it was unconstitutional.

Sentencing in murder cases is now left solely to the discretion of judges, but there are relatively few cases in which the death penalty is imposed. In 1999, Watson was sentenced to death for the murder of his common-law wife, Eugenie Samuels, and their nine-month-old daughter, Georgina Watson.

It was reported that they were fatally stabbed as a result of a maintenance case brought against Watson.

 

BEFORE THE AMENDMENT

 

Following Watson's victory, his death sentence was commuted.

Before the amendment, the death penalty was mandatory for more than one murder conviction, the murders of members of the security forces, correctional officers, justices of the peace and judicial officers during the execution of their duties, as well as witnesses and jurors, contract killings, and murder committed during the furtherance of certain offences.

Director of Public Prosecutions Paula Llewellyn disclosed that 95 per cent of the murder cases now before the court are non-capital, which does not attract the death penalty.

A seven-member jury now hears such cases and unanimous or majority verdicts are accepted.

Llewellyn said the other five per cent are classified as capital murders, but she said that since the formula in the Daniel Dick Trimmingham Case, even when the Crown asks for the death penalty, it is very rare that judges will accede to it.

"The threshold that one has to reach based on the Trimmingham formula and adopted by the Court of Appeal, has rendered it unattainable for the pronouncement of the death penalty," Llewellyn said.

However, she said prosecutors will still ask for the death penalty in appropriate cases as the law was still on the books.

barbara.gayle@gleanerjm.com