Historic case will determine legality of sentencing policy in murder cases
A 22-year-old man who shot and killed a love rival is seeking a declaration that his sentence of life without parole was unlawful in what will be a landmark human rights test case for the Cayman Islands.
Lawyers for Tareek Ricketts, convicted in July of murdering Jackson Rainford, filed a petition with the Grand Court last week on the grounds that the sentence amounts to “inhuman and degrading treatment” and therefore breaches human rights guaranteed by the Cayman Islands Bill of Rights.
If successful, the lawsuit will establish a legal precedent that would effectively end the Cayman Islands policy of automatically sentencing murderers to serve the rest of their lives behind bars. It would give Ricketts, and other killers currently serving life terms, the right to have their sentences reviewed.
Ricketts shot Mr. Rainford, a young father of two, in the head and chest as he sat in a parked car in George Town in December 2012.
European court judgment cited
The petition cites an historic judgment in the European Court of Human Rights this year that ruled life sentences need to have the possibility of release and the possibility of review to be compatible with article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which prohibits “inhuman and degrading treatment”.
The ruling is especially relevant because Cayman’s Bill of Rights mirrors the European convention, and the European court, based in Strasbourg, France, is the highest court of appeal for Cayman residents in human rights cases.
The Strasbourg ruling followed an appeal by three British prisoners serving whole life sentences: Jeremy Bamber, who killed his parents, his sister and her two children in 1986; Douglas Vinter, who murdered a colleague in 1996, and after being released stabbed his wife to death in 2008; and Peter Moore, who killed four gay men in 1995.
In their decision, the judges effectively took the sentencing option of life without the possibility of release off the table, even in the most heinous cases. The court decided that, even in cases of such magnitude, the option to have a life sentence reviewed is a basic human right.
The Cayman petition, filed by law firm Samson and McGrath, argues that the relevant clause in the Cayman Islands Bill of Rights, “No person shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” is identical to Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights and should be applied in the same way.
It states: “The court ruled that to be compatible with Article 3, a sentence of life imprisonment must be subject to the possibility of review and the possibility of release. The relevant practice in the United Kingdom was a violation of Article 3.
“The Bill of Rights is directly analogous to Article 3 of the convention. It is therefore submitted that the reasoning of the European Court accordingly is properly to be applied to questions regarding Article 3 of the Bill of Rights.”
The petition asks the court to make “a declaration that the said sentence was unlawful and in violation of the petitioner’s constitutional right as guaranteed by article 3 of the Bill of Rights.”
The court is also asked to make a ruling on how the section of the Penal Code, mandating whole life sentences for murder, is interpreted in the future.
Currently there is no mechanism for murderers in the Cayman Islands to seek early release or have their sentences reviewed after a period of time. There is an option for the governor, using discretionary powers under the Prisons Law, to order the release on license (specific conditions) of a prisoner serving a life sentence.
In other jurisdictions, including the U.K., judges have discretionary power to set tariffs on life sentences, ranging between 15 and 30 years, after which murderers become eligible to be considered for parole
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 U.K. law.
The report pointed out that the offense 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.