Killers could see life sentences reduced

The Cayman Islands Human Rights Committee has recommended that life prison sentences for murder no longer be mandatory.

Instead, the committee wants the Legislative Assembly to give judges more discretion in specific cases where life without parole may not be warranted.

That recommendation comes after six convicted killers now serving time in the island’s Northward prison appealed to the HRC earlier this year, asking it to investigate their cases.

After a seven month review, HRC attorneys concluded laws, which impose life sentences for all offences of murder are contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as two other international human rights treaties.

The committee said the prisoners would be highly likely to succeed if they took their claims before the European Court of Human Rights, and that they would probably be awarded damages. Attorneys also said Cayman could then be forced to change its laws.

HRC lawyer James Austin-Smith said the courts have no option under current law. The same sentence must be handed out for a mercy killing, or for a killing in self defence in which excessive force was used, as would be given to someone convicted in a triple homicide.

Human rights attorneys recommended a system of tariffs, or minimum sentencing guidelines, be developed. The tariffs would allow judges to review the sentence after the minimum number of years had been served, and determine whether the convicted murderer was still a danger to society.

In the case of the six Northward prison inmates, the HRC said sentencing judges, or the chief justice, should be allowed to review the circumstances surrounding their crimes, and determine a minimum prison term. If any of the six had already been in prison longer than the minimum term, and a judge decides they pose no risk to the public, they would have to be released.

The HRC can only make recommendations. Any changes to the law would have to be approved in LA. Governor Stuart Jack could also order any of the six prisoners released, but attorneys said that action wouldn’t correct the sentencing problem in Cayman, and might not be warranted anyway.

Mr. Austin-Smith said specific details of the six Northward prisoner’s murder cases were not reviewed by the committee, so it’s not clear if any of them would be eligible for release, if the law was changed.

“A decision as to how long they serve, or the minimum period they must serve should be determined by a judge rather than anyone else,” said Mr. Austin-Smith. “For that reason the report was drafted without knowledge of the individual circumstances.”

The Compass reviewed the details of each prisoner’s crime.

Owen Barrington Bruce, Blandford Lowell Dixon, and Lensel Vernie Dixon were all charged and convicted in the January 1986 killing of Charles Evans Rankine. Mr. Rankine was the step-father of Blandford and Lensel Dixon, who are brothers. All three men were sentenced to death, but had those sentences commuted to life in prison in 1991.

William Stuart Powell was charged and convicted in the June 1986 shooting deaths of Charles and Gaynell Ebanks. Powell also had his death sentenced commuted.

McAndy Ford Thomas was charged and convicted in the March 1990 death of 77 year-old Ratmir Pavlovic. Mr. Pavlovic was an employee of the Gold Royale jewelry store, and was killed during a robbery at the store. Another man who police said was involved in the heist, Jerry Machado Christian, was found guilty of manslaughter and given a 14-year sentence. Mr. Christian was not involved in the HRC appeal.

In January 1994, George Roper and another inmate barricaded themselves in a cell at the Northward prison. A prison employee died in the incident after prison officers attempted to get into the cell.

Other Sentencing Guidelines Reviewed

The HRC report also examined mandatory minimum sentences for lesser crimes, which were largely created by a series of new laws the LA passed in Oct. 2005. The committee said it’s concerned these sentences may fall foul of the European convention.

Attorneys said none of the 2005 laws tailored the sentence based on the offence committed, or even considered the age of the suspect involved.

For example, the HRC review said a 12 year-old using an air rifle would receive the same minimum sentence under the Firearms Law as a 30 year-old man wielding a machine-gun loaded with armour-piercing bullets.

“The committee suggested that the mandatory minimums be removed,” said Mr. Austin-Smith. “But failing that, the laws…should have included in them an ‘exceptional circumstances’ clause.”

The HRC also pointed out the mandatory minimums included no provisions for reducing a suspect’s sentence in exchange for a guilty plea.

Compass reporter Carol Winker contributed to this story.