Challenges ahead for lifers’ tariffs

| 19/02/2018 | 15 Comments
Cayman News Service, life sentences

HMP Northward

(CNS): The Grand Court of the Cayman Islands has now completed the allocation of tariffs for all the relevant prisoners serving mandatory life sentences for murder, defining the minimum time they must serve before they are eligible for release on licence. However, the appeal court is likely to be hearing challenges to several of them later this year. The change to the system brought about by the Conditional Release Law, which was enacted to comply with the Bill of Rights in Cayman’s Constitution, has thrown up its own human rights challenges as well as questions of interpretation for judges that have not been easy to address. 

The recent exercise completed by the courts has seen around a dozen lifers receive determinate minimum time periods based on the change to the law that was implemented in February 2016.

This change in the legislation, replacing the prison law, paved the way to set a time period, or tariff, of 30 years for a mandatory life sentence. It was greeted with consternation by the wider community as people interpreted the legislation as being soft on murderers. But the law, which was supposed to address human rights concerns about ‘life’ meaning life, which was seen as undermining the chance of redemption, may have created more human rights problems than it has fixed.

While the previous legislation imposed a mandatory life sentence on convicted killers, it was not really life behind bars as there was still a path to parole. At least six convicted killers have been released on licence over the past decade after serving in some cases as little as 22 years of their sentences. This was as a result of applying to the governor’s office, which had the power under that law to set parole hearings for all inmates, including lifers.

Several other lifers who are still serving mandatory sentences in HMP Northward but who made applications to the governor for a parole hearing before the implementation of the Conditional Release Law have not been given a life tariff. Instead, they have been allowed to go through the old process. This means that they could be released after serving far less time than the minimum terms that have been handed down to those over the last few months.

The shortest tariff under the new law given to any of the lifers so far is 23 years but most have been 30 and over. On Monday, Justice Charles Quin handed down the shortest minimum term to John Gouldbourne (68) for the murder of Moreen Maree Williams almost 14 years ago. Gouldbourne was convicted of a brutal attack in which Williams sustained more than 60 knife wounds before he shot her in the head.

In contrast, the chief justice handed down 40-year terms to the two men who killed Estella Scott-Roberts, the longest life term for any of Cayman’s killers, even exceeding the  38 years given to Raziel Jeffers (34) for two gang-related murder convictions. Jeffers was convicted in 2012 of murdering Marcus Ebanks in West Bay in 2009 when he and a second unknown gunman opened fire on a group of young people outside Bonaventure Boys Home. In 2014  he was convicted of gunning down and killing gang rival Damion Ming in a West Bay yard in March 2010.

The change in the way lifers are being treated is raising serious questions now about the parity of punishment. In some cases, such as the sentences handed to Larry Ricketts and Kirkland Henry for their horrifying murder of Scott-Roberts, a catalog of obvious aggravating factors fuelled the massive uplift.

But in others there are legitimate questions about parity for the current lifers receiving the tariffs compared to their serving peers who have already been released early or who are on track to do so and may have killed in similar circumstances and for similar reasons.

Some killers are serving more than three decades behind bars before they can apply for release on licence, not based on the aggravated circumstances of their crimes but because of the legislative change, while others have been released already after serving less than 25 years.

One example is the case of Bryan Roland Powell (37), who, along with Kurt Fabian Ebanks, was convicted of killing the taxi driver Curtis Seymour in 2000. Powell received a 26-year tariff in November last year but Ebanks is being dealt with under the old legislation and could be released relatively soon after serving considerably less time than his co-conspirator for the same crime.

Leonard Antonio Ebanks, who was sentenced to 34 years last week for the murder of Tyrone Burrell, made the point that a number of other prisoners in HMP Northward for murder were serving shorter terms.

He asked the court how he could be facing such a long tariff when a former fellow inmate who killed a prison officer while serving for another offence, which would have earned him a tariff well over 30 years under the new system, was released in 2013 after serving around 22 years. The judge did not dispute Ebanks’ point but noted that he was required to follow the new law.

The Grand Court has already ruled that the issue of the release of some lifers early under the old prison law and the opportunity for others to still be considered under it has not established a precedent or reasonable expectation of release. But the issue is not necessarily settled because no appeals have yet been filed.

However, CNS understands that at least two appeals will be filed in the coming weeks based on a number of issues relating to these inequities.

Another issue likely to fuel appeals is the question of how the law was drafted regarding the discretion the court has in moving from the 30-year statutory term for life. The legislation states that the tariff for murder shall be 30 years unless there are exceptional circumstances that could see the time increased or decreased. But interpreting the list of factors can be challenging, as some are ‘either/or’ issues – binary situations which cannot be seen as having degrees of exception.

One of the factors listed for judges to consider is the murder of a public official, such as a police officer. But as lawyers have said, a victim either was or was not a public official so there cannot be exceptional circumstances surrounding that situation, making it hard to understand the amount of discretion the Legislative Assembly wanted to give to judges.

Lawyers have also argued extensively about how exceptional it is in Cayman for killers to use firearms and whether or not sentences should be aggravated by that, given that the majority of male killers in Cayman shot their victims.

The end result of this recent exercise by the Grand Court will be closely scrutinised by the Cayman Islands Court of Appeal, with equity and parity being key questions for consideration once these cases are tested. The first case and how it is assessed will help settle future decisions, but the law itself may still need review before the way Cayman punishes its killers is settled.

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Category: Courts, Crime

Comments (15)

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  1. Jijeraldo says:

    Yes really .one mistake the law is making is to put those scumbag cold blooded murderers that takes the lives of our love ones and treats our love ones like they were nothing that deserves to live and I still say .open your eyes the people of the Cayman islands and look at dead that will never return while the killers will return our streets and kill again .I think it’s fear for the killers .life for life should be imposed by our soft law that is implimented .

    • Anonymous says:

      8:48 am, Agreed, there should be capital punishment for planned murders, at the very least they shoudl be put in prison until they are dead or the one that they killed comes back to life.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The amount of public money spent on these often ridiculous appeals is an absolute disgrace. Any of these criminals can appeal almost anything with their lawyers knowing that there is a zero percent chance of successful appeal. These criminals also know that it is the public that has to pay for their appeals time after time so there is no downside to bringing ridiculous appeals. Many of these criminals unsuccessfully appealed their original convictions at great cost to the public and now they are going to appeal their reduced sentences at public expense.

    I would much rather see money spent on preventing youngsters from commencing a life of crime than on frivolous appeals by these criminals.

    The criminals ought to be limited to appeals that can be shown on the basis of skeleton arguments to have a substantial prospect of success. The lawyers who take on frivolous appeals for the sake of their bottom lines should be forced to pay for both the criminals costs and the crowns cost when they lose.

    • West bay Premier says:

      Anonymous 8:07 am , you will not see the last sentence in your comment come to fruition . That’s why they have the Law as it is, for one’s own benefits.
      But I agree that they should be responsible after taking on those kind of appeals .

  3. West bay Premier says:

    When the pain hits close to home of the Officials , then things will change but not before .

  4. John Lin says:

    Why on earth the human rights do-gooders ever pressed for the removal of the death penalty is beyond me. I guess no one in their family has ever been murdered or robbed at the point of a gun.
    Spending public money keeping these animals locked up for 30 years while old people go hungry. Absurd.

    • Anonymous says:

      Privy Council, 2002:

      “It has however been recognised for very many years that the crime of murder embraces a range of offences of widely varying degrees of criminal culpability. It covers at one extreme the sadistic murder of a child for purposes of sexual gratification, a terrorist atrocity causing multiple deaths or a contract killing, at the other the mercy-killing of a loved one suffering unbearable pain in a terminal illness or a killing which results from an excessive response to a perceived threat. All killings which satisfy the definition of murder are by no means equally heinous.”

      That’s why.

      • Anonymous says:

        If i ran for MLA and i said i would fight to bring back Capital/Corporal punishment, i would not get 50 votes, and that’s why politicians don’t do anything about it’

      • Injustice Is Real says:

        “At the other (extreme), a killing which results from an excessive response to a perceived threat. All killings which satisfy the definition of murder are by no means equally heinous.” So how then is Anglin’s sentence still life with a 30-year tariff (“the norm”) when both he and his girlfriend were harassed, assaulted and threatened by two dangerous criminals who have either killed people themselves or were involved in some way on more than one occasion when he said he was acting out of fear of violence (after almost getting killed in a similar situation already)?? But yet John Goldbourne gets 23 years because he was 55 (a grown-ass man) when he stabs a girl 60+ times AND shoots her in the head after 20 mins of torture for no apparent reason!!?? Because he had some failed marriages?? Seems pretty biased to me, just being objective. I thought that DA’s would have been a case that would’ve warranted at least some reduction, however slight. Fair is fair. Injustice is real.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Oooh, look, there’s a tempest in my tea cup. While there may be some ‘refinement’ (common to any new law and what Appeals Court is for anyway) since several jurisdictions, not least the UK, have similar systems the new ‘life tariff’ system isn’t going away. They should just be glad they’re not using the US system where they just give you sequential ‘long’ (~ century) sentences to make sure there’s no chance you’re eligible for parole.

    • Anonymous says:

      Why is so much time being wasted on this? Who the hell cares if they face challenges. I cannot even believe these are the headlines. Challenges? Really? WTF….challenges? the challenges when a person loses their loved ones do these pieces of s..t, that is a challenge. Who cares about their challenges. Let them rot in jail and never see the outside world.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Life in prison should be life in prison! These scumbags shouldn’t have an opportunity at life again. Keep these animals locked away from society! Believe you me, everyone benefits!

    • Anonymous says:

      Absolutely true totally agree but regrettably the laws that were passed say otherwise.

    • Anonymous says:

      @11:36 if only we could catch the criminals in this country who hide behind their white collars, smile screens and public sympathies! My what a contrasting prison population we would have! Most of the criminals in this country have gone undetected I’m afraid.

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