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Death penalty law

CAROL MARTINDALE, [email protected]

Death penalty law

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The Trinidad and Tobago government today announced plans to introduce new legislation to facilitate the implementation of the death penalty in the country.
Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar in a statement to Parliament said that her seven-month-old People’s Partnership government had decided to introduce an amendment to the Constitution to facilitate the new initiative by her administration.
There are 42 persons on death row here.
Caribbean countries have complained in the past that rulings by the London-based Privy Council, the final court for some regional countries, have made it much more difficult for carrying out the death penalty on convicted killers.
Prime Minister Persad Bissessar said the government has incorporated into the new bill a previous law that was passed by Parliament in 2000 “whereby murders were categorized to strike a balance and appreciate the varied circumstances in which a murder can occur.
“We propose to treat with murder in three categories, and not to impose the death penalty in all cases of murder,” she said, adding that the Offences against the Persons Bill had first been tabled by the then people’s National Movement (PNM) government in October 2000 and “unanimously passed without any amendments with the full support of the (then) opposition”.
She told the Parliament that there had been “no real debate on this bill because there was agreement by both parties that it was necessary and proper.
“That law was never however proclaimed. Some legal experts have expressed the view that such a law in any event requires a special majority and would be better housed in the constitution,” she said.
Prime Minister Persad Bissessar said given the past statements by the PNM regarding the implementation of the death penalty, her administration “anticipates the full and unconditional support of the opposition in this matter.
“There is no room for partisan politics when it comes to the fight against crime. Responsible and matured leadership is needed to rescue our nation from this abyss of crime. We proceed on the assumption that the PNM has not changed its position on this critical matter,” she said.
The Prime Minister made it clear that the “death penalty was and remains the law of the land.
“This Bill does not introduce any new penalty that did not previously exist in our laws. It simply seeks to plug some of the loop holes that have been exploited and manipulated by murders who have been properly convicted and sentenced to death according to law.
“The Government of the People’s Partnership is fully committed to the rule of law and to this end we will seek to give effect to the law of the land in relation to murders. However, the Government’s commitment to upholding the law has resulted in difficulties in implementing the death penalty, mainly because the convicted murderer has a constitutional right of appeal to the Court of Appeal and the Privy Council.
“There is also a further right to petition the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and apply for Presidential pardon via the Mercy Committee. The systematic and endemic delays in this process make it virtually impossible to implement the death penalty,” she said.
According to the Prime Minister, first degree murder would be for an intentional killing by means of poison, or by lying in wait, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate and premeditated action, while second degree murder would be for homicides committed by an individual engaged as a principal or an accomplice in the perpetration of a felony.
Third degree murder would be as a result of “any other murder” such as when the intent was not to kill, but to harm the victim, the Prime Minister said noting that many developed countries like Germany, Canada and Australia also make provisions for categorising murders.
The Prime Minister said that the government intends to restrict the mandatory imposition of the death sentence in relation to murder One.
“These will include the killing of a member of the security force, a prison officer, and a judicial or legal officer acting in the performance of his duties; the murder of a witness or a juror, murders committed by a bomb, and contract murders.”
She said the bill would also specify the circumstances in which the death sentence or life imprisonment may be imposed for murder two and the classification of murder three as involuntary homicide.
“Any new legislation relating to the implementation of the death penalty that is not protected by the savings clause of the Constitution or the Constitution itself is likely to be quashed without dissent by the Privy Council.  These provisions therefore need to be included in the Constitution, which the supreme law of Trinidad and Tobago.”
The Prime Minister said that the new legislation would seek to overcome the hindrances to the implementation of the death penalty arising out of various Privy Council decisions, such as pre-trial delay, post-trial delay, legitimate expectation that the Mercy Committee would consider the findings of an international body and prison conditions. 
The 1994 Pratt and Morgan case requires the death penalty to be executed within five years from the date of sentence, while a 1999 Privy Council ruling upheld the right of condemned persons to access international bodies to which Trinidad and Tobago has subscribed, even if such bodies are unable or unwilling to deal with capital cases within a reasonable time so as to allow Trinidad and Tobago to comply with the deadlines laid down in Pratt and Morgan.
The Prime Minister said that the 2000 case of Lewis verus the Attorney General of Jamaica “has opened the door for potential challenges to the proceedings of the Mercy Committee by specifying that a condemned person must be notified that the Mercy Committee will be meeting to consider his case, be given all information that the Mercy Committee will consider and be invited to make written representation to the Committee.
“The case of Lewis … also suggested that deplorable prison conditions might be such as to aggravate the punishment of the death sentence so as to amount to inhuman and degrading treatment,” she told Parliament. (CMC)