(CNS): Following the passage of the Conditional Release Law last year and the implementation of the law in February, preparations are underway for hearings to begin this month for those prisoners in HMP Northward who are serving whole life sentences to receive tariffs. The law, which focuses heavily on the rehabilitation of all offenders before they can be released on parole, also deals with the concept of tariffs and setting a minimum time period that those who committed the ultimate crime will serve before they are eligible for release.
During a case management hearing on Wednesday, retired judge Alex Henderson returned to the bench to begin the process of setting the cases he will hear. The court takes the position that the hearings to set tariffs will be an extension of the original sentencing hearing and each of the convicted men will appear before the judge who tried and convicted them. The process will start with those who have been serving the longest.
Henderson was due to hear the case of Brian Powell, who, along with Kurt Ebanks, was convicted in 2001 of killing taxi driver Curtis Seymour, but the need for a mental health report on the inmate’s condition has delayed his case until the New Year.
As a result, Justice Henderson will hear his first tariff case on 28 October, when Trevino Tennson Bodden (30) is expected to appear. The East End man was convicted in November 2007 of killing brothers Bernard Scott and Roy Renold Pearson in November 2006. He was 21 at the time of the murder and has been serving time since his arrest shortly after the killing.
But the court heard Wednesday that Bodden is unrepresented. Although all of the lifers have been given the opportunity to apply for legal aid to instruct their original defence attorneys and have the QCs who represented them during the trial argue their cases for the tariff, the inmate has at this point not instructed counsel because of a concern raised by a number of inmates.
The law states that judges must have a sentencing starting point of 30 years. While mitigating and aggravating factors, as well as exceptional circumstances, could see the number of years that they will serve fall below or rise above that term, some of the lifers believe that this could mean they will serve more time than expected, even without the change in the law to end the ‘life means life’ sentence.
Bodden and others have raised concerns that while ‘life’ may on paper have meant ‘life’ under the old law, in reality almost no lifers have actually served a life term. Over the last few years alone at least six convicted murderers have been released on licence by the governor under the Prerogative of Mercy.
Ironically, as it was a human rights issue that led the government to introduce tariffs for lifers, the inmates now believe that they are facing a new human rights challenge. Legislators have set a relatively high starting point for the life tariff of 30 years, meaning the inmates who may, under the old law, have had the opportunity to be released on licence by the governor in the not too distant future could now be facing a much longer term than their predecessors, who left the jail after an average of around 20 years.
While releasing prisoners on the basis of mercy has been entirely discretionary, the tariff system is equitable because all prisoners will be given a definite time for a parole hearing. They can then work towards that date on a rehabilitative course based on their good behaviour and all the relevant factors of their cases, giving a genuine opportunity for release for all.
But several lifers were already anticipating and working towards their release at the governor’s mercy and they are now concerned that the new law will leave them stuck behind bars for much longer than they had been led to expect based on the precedents set by the various governor’s decisions regarding the prerogative.
It is likely that defence counsel for several of the inmates will be using the precedents set by past governors to argue for much lower sentence for their clients that the tariff set by the parliament.
So far, only one serving prisoner who was convicted of murder has received a tariff for their crime. Tamara Butler was the first inmate to be sentenced for life with a minimum term after she was convicted of killing her six-year-old daughter. Suffering from mental health problems, Butler was given a 28-year term in May this year by visiting judge, Justice Alasdair Malcolm. He ordered that the 39-year-old woman should serve 26 years and 191 days before she is eligible for parole, after she had already served more than a year on remand.
Justin Ramoon and Osbourne Douglas will be the next defendants to be sentenced on a murder charge. In May of this year, in a trial heard by Justice Charles Quin, the George Town brothers were convicted of killing Jason Powery in gang related violence last summer. They are scheduled to appear before him today (Thursday 20 October) for consideration of sentence.
This could prove to be an important precedent ahead of the tariff pro, as it will be the first insight into the court’s view of whether the starting point should be increased in cases of gang related violence.