Life sentences ‘inhuman’, court rules

Strasbourg ruling has implications for the Cayman Islands

Whole life jail sentences without the possibility of parole for convicted murderers are called “inhuman” in a landmark European court ruling that could have implications in the Cayman Islands. 

The decision in Strasbourg on Tuesday could put renewed pressure on Cayman Islands lawmakers to alter sentencing guidelines in murder cases. 

Right now, judges in the territory have only one option following a murder conviction – a sentence of life in prison without parole. 

Governor Duncan Taylor stoked a new debate over the policy when, using his powers under the Prisons Law, he announced last month the release of convicted killer Blanford Dixon after 27 years in prison with conditions attached.  

Mr. Dixon was originally sentenced to death for his role in the killing of his stepfather Charles Evans Rankine in 1986. That sentence was commuted to life in prison when the death penalty was abolished in Cayman in 1991. 

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Several other prisoners serving life sentences at Her Majesty’s Prison at Northward are asking for their cases to be reviewed, arguing that a sentence of life behind bars without the possibility of release is a contravention of their human rights. 

Their case may have been made simpler by this week’s ruling at the European Court of Human Rights. 

In its decision, following a request for review by three killers sentenced to serve life behind bars in the UK, the court said there had been a violation of article three of the European convention on human rights, which prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment. 

The judgment said, “For a life sentence to remain compatible with article three, there had to be both a possibility of release and a possibility of review.” 

In this case, the three killers – Jeremy Bamber, Peter Moore and Douglas Vinter – were sentenced by judges to serve the rest of their lives behind bars, despite flexibility within the British system offering judges the chance to set lower minimum term limits.  

James Austin-Smith, a lawyer who worked on the Cayman Islands Human Rights Committee’s review of sentencing policy in 2006, said the ruling from the European Court of Human Rights, which has jurisdiction in the Cayman Islands, had clear implications for the territory. 

“I think it adds to the weight of authority that makes it clear that mandatory whole-life sentences without the possibility of parole are contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. 

“This reinforces other rulings that make it clear that sentences should be decided by judges taking account of the particular facts of the crimes in question and not fixed by law or decided by politicians,” Mr. Austin-Smith said. 

The Strasbourg ruling went a step further than previous judgments on the issue, making it clear that, even in cases where judges have set whole-life sentences for particularly heinous crimes, that tariff should be open to review. 

“They decided that whole-life sentences of imprisonment without any possibility of release amount to inhuman and degrading treatment, unless there is both the possibility of release and the possibility of a review, probably after 25 years’ imprisonment.” Mr. Austin-Smith said. 

“The court was very keen to emphasise that the judgment did not give the prisoners who brought the case any prospect of imminent release.” 

The ruling noted that whether or not the prisoners should eventually be released would depend “for example, on whether there were still legitimate penological grounds for their continued detention and whether they should continue to be detained on grounds of dangerousness”. 

The same would be true in the Cayman Islands, should politicians decide to alter the law, allowing judges to set minimum tariffs for convicted murderers. 

The change would open up several cases for review, but it would be ultimately be up to the judges to decide on a case-by-case basis if and when each individual should be eligible to be considered for release. 

The existing system in the UK leaves sentencing in the hands of the judges. There are a range of options in murder cases with judges deciding on a case-by-case basis, what the minimum term in prison should be. 

The 2006 Human Rights Committee report in the Cayman Islands on the issue noted that not all murders were equal in gravity, that the sentencing policy in the Cayman Islands was in contravention of European rulings on human rights and suggested it should be altered in line with changes in the UK law. 

The report pointed out that the offence of murder spanned a range of potential crimes, from multiple sadistic child killings to a mercy killing of a loved one in severe pain, highlighting the inflexibility of a “one size fits all” sentencing policy. 

The Strasbourg ruling goes further, effectively taking the sentencing option of life without the possibility of release off the table, even in the most heinous cases. 

The applicants in this case were Douglas Vinter, who murdered a colleague in 1996 and after being released stabbed his wife in 2008; Jeremy Bamber, now 51, who killed his parents, his sister and her two young children in 1985; and Peter Moore, who killed four gay men for his sexual gratification in 1995. 

The court decided that, even in cases of such magnitude, the option to have a life sentence reviewed was a basic human right. 

The decision angered UK politicians including Prime Minister David Cameron. His spokesman said, “[The prime minister] is very, very, very, very disappointed. He profoundly disagrees with the court’s ruling. He is a strong supporter of whole-life tariffs.” 

Asked about the ruling that tariffs without a review amounted to a breach of human rights, the spokesman said: “We profoundly disagree. [The prime minister] is a strong supporter of judges, of course, having the ability to award whole-life tariffs. Sentencing obviously is a matter for the judges. But the PM believes that should be available in certain cases.” 

Neither the Cayman Islands Premier Alden McLaughlin or the office of the governor responded to requests for comment by press time on Tuesday. 


Jeremy Bamber
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  1. What about the life sentence these killers have imposed on the families of the people they killed?

    To live without their murdered loved one for the rest of their life.

    They have forfeited the right to live in normal society.

  2. Once again the courts have proven that Victims’ rights are regularly outweighed by the so called rights of the people that committed the crime. If you take someone’s life you should lose the right to have one of your own.

  3. It is important for Caymanians to understand just what this court is that Governor Duncan used as the rational to release a convicted murderer.

    It is not a Caymanian court. It is not a U.K. court. It is a court domiciled in France whose judges are from countries such as Serbia, Latvia, Romania, Ukraine, Bulgary, Slovenia, Croatia. These are the people telling a locally elected Caymanian judge that his sentence is in error.

    Lawyers make the argument that this is a good thing. However, to the common sense man on the street, this is madness.

    The U.K. should have said No. Now the burden has fallen on the people of Cayman to say No.

    Why should a court where a member judge calls the Bosnian Federation home, have any say in Cayman?

    The solution here is Cayman needs a parole law. Get it elected officials.