Although it disputes claims that mandatory life sentences for murder convictions will place the Cayman Islands on the wrong side of human rights, the territory’s Human Rights Commission has spoken out in support of adding a parole option for those prisoners.
Currently, the only option Cayman Islands judges have once a criminal suspect is convicted of murder is a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
It would be up to Cayman Islands lawmakers to change that requirement, if they wished, according to a statement released to the Caymanian Compass on Wednesday by the Human Rights Commission.
“Local legislation could be enacted that would 1) mandate the sentencing judge, when imposing a sentence of life imprisonment, to set a minimum tariff before which time the convicted person would be ineligible to be considered for parole,” the statement from the HRC read. “[Lawmakers could also] mandate a tariff below which the minimum tariff could not be set by the sentencing judge.”
In either case, a mandatory life prison sentence for convicted killers would remain. The only question is whether they might be released on parole given certain mitigating factors.
“A sentence of imprisonment for life would not conflict with the Bill of Rights, Freedoms and Responsibilities,” noted the commission. “This is based both on case law in the European Court of Human Rights who have ruled that sentences for life can still be imposed by the judges and because prisoners still have the ability to apply to the Governor under the Advisory Committee on the Prerogative of Mercy.”
Cayman’s Bill of Rights under the 2009 Constitution Order is due to come into effect as of November.
An appeal before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that failed earlier this year could have a major impact on upcoming Cayman-based court challenges to life imprisonment following conviction on murder charges.
In January, three convicted murders lost their appeal claiming that whole-life sentencing tariffs condemning prisoners to die in jail amounted to “inhuman and degrading treatment”.
According to the Daily Telegraph, convicted killer Jeremy Bamber, who had been behind bars for more than 25 years after shooting his adopted parents, his sister and her 6-year-old twin sons, attacked the decision.
The European court judges ruled the whole-life tariffs were not “grossly disproportionate” and in each specific case London’s High Court had “decided an all-life tariff was required”.
In the United Kingdom, whole-life tariff prisoners will usually not be released from prison ever unless they are freed on compassionate grounds when the prisoner is terminally ill or incapacitated.
Although compliance has been achieved, HRC indicated that Cayman should still look to establish “best practices” in sentencing for murder convictions and other cases.
“Adding parole serves as a control on and support for a released prisoner,” the HRC noted. “Adding parole will also formalise the process ensuring each person who applies is afforded a lawful administrative action.”
As far back as 2006, defence attorneys and the former Cayman Islands Human Rights Committee recommended that mandatory life sentences for murder be changed. The groups advocated on behalf of six convicted killers now serving time at Her Majesty’s Prison at Northward in Grand Cayman who had appealed to the former committee, asking it to investigate their cases. The group requested at the time that the Legislative Assembly give local judges more discretion in specific cases where life without parole may not be warranted.
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.