New call to end ‘whole life’ sentences

Human Rights Commission report urges government to reform policy now

The Cayman Islands should reform its policy of imposing life sentences without parole in all murder cases or face being forced to adopt a system from another country, the Human Rights Commission has warned.

Adding its voice to growing concerns that the mandatory sentence for convicted killers is incompatible with the Cayman Islands Bill of Rights, the commission urged government to take action now, before being compelled to do so by court order.

The report, “Whole Life Sentences, The Impact of Human Rights and the Need for a New Model,” concludes unequivocally that Cayman’s current sentencing policy is in violation of local and international human rights legislation and must be reformed.

Currently, 19 people are serving life sentences for murder at Grand Cayman’s Northward Prison.

They would all be eligible to have their sentences reviewed if the whole life sentences are outlawed, either by the court or the legislature.

The report concludes: “The Human Rights Commission is concerned that a lack of willingness by the legislature to grapple with this serious and sensitive issue will lead to the Cayman Islands being forced to adopt a system from another jurisdiction; foregoing the opportunity to tailor a system to the unique circumstances of our jurisdiction.

“The Cayman Islands is at a point in time whereby, although limited, a window of opportunity is still available to find an appropriate balance and construct a human-rights-compliant life sentence tariff system that protects the rights and freedoms of the community while protecting the inherent dignity of the individual in accordance with the Bill of Rights.”

Tariff system

A tariff system, such as the one suggested in the report, would allow judges discretion to set a time period, for example 25 years, after which convicted murderers could be eligible for parole.

This does not mean they would be automatically set free at this time, but that they would have the right to be considered for release.

Currently, the only mechanism for anyone serving a life sentence to be set free is for the governor to intervene, using her powers under the Prisons Law.

The Human Rights Commission’s report argues that this is not enough to be compliant with the Cayman Islands Bill of Rights.

It points out that reports in 2006 and 2010 also had indicated that the policy, laid out in the Penal Code, was in violation of international human rights standards, and expresses surprise that nothing has been done to remedy the situation.

Describing whole life sentences as a “blunt sentencing tool” that applies to all cases, regardless of circumstances, the report adds:

“Seemingly, there appeared to be an acceptance in 2006 that all murders do not weigh the same in the scales of human wickedness; yet we discover in present-day that all murders continue to be equal before the law wherein judges have no option other than to impose mandatory life sentences (whole life – no release) for any person convicted of murder regardless of the circumstances surrounding the crime.

“As early as 2010, the Human Rights Commission stated that the blanket mandatory whole life sentence for murder would conflict with the Government’s Bill of Rights positive obligation to ensure that no person is subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

European Court weighs in

The decision may be taken out of the hands of legislators. The European Court of Human Rights, which is the highest court of appeal for Cayman Islands residents on human rights issues, has already established that whole life sentences, even in the most heinous circumstances, are not compatible with human rights legislation.

The Cayman Islands is set to get a test case on the issue following a petition to the Grand Court from Tareek Ricketts, 22, regarding his life sentence for the shooting death of Jackson Rainford in 2012.

His lawyers argue that the sentence amounts to “inhuman or degrading treatment” because it does not offer the possibility of review or release at any time.

Both the commission’s report and the petition cite 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. The court decided that, even in cases of such magnitude, the option to have a life sentence reviewed is a basic human right.


  1. The government needs to address this issue urgently accepting that there will unfortunately be a few legislators who prefer to keep their heads buried in the sand and pretend that we can continue to impose full-life sentences. The risk of having a system imposed on us that is far more liberal than we could have tailored for ourselves is simply too great.
    The Human Rights Commission is to be commended for their further efforts to keep that from happening.