All 15 murderers currently serving life without parole at Grand Cayman’s Northward Prison will find out within the next two years when they can be considered for release.
Authorities are preparing for a series of new sentencing hearings following the implementation of the Conditional Release Law last week, which ends a long-held policy of automatic life sentences for murderers.
The law represents the most significant change in how Cayman deals with convicted killers since the abolition of the death penalty.
Peter Gough, strategic adviser to the deputy governor, said a judge of the Grand Court would be appointed to review the circumstances of each murder and set a potential release date for each prisoner.
Prisons director Neil Lavis has 14 days from the implementation of the law on Feb. 15 to provide Chief Justice Anthony Smellie and Director of Public Prosecutions Cheryll Richards with a list of the prisoners serving life sentences in preparation for new hearings which, by law, must be heard within 24 months.
Under the previous legislation, judges had no option but to impose whole life sentences in murder cases, meaning that convicted killers would be locked up for the rest of their lives without the prospect of release except by special order of the governor of the Cayman Islands.
The new law, which follows a recent ruling of the European Court of Human Rights that whole life sentences amount to “inhumane treatment,” allows more flexibility. In most cases, murderers will be considered for release after 30 years, but the judge has the discretion to raise or lower that tariff, depending on the circumstances of the crime.
The prisoners who have been behind bars the longest will have their new sentencing hearings scheduled first.
Prathna Bodden, an attorney with Samson and McGrath, said the firm has a number of clients who would be resentenced.
Ms. Bodden said, “All of them are going to come back before the court. I think it makes sense for it to happen sooner rather than later. No doubt the defendants will want to know what their sentence is so they understand their position and can work towards that date.”
She said the public would quickly see that the change would not mean the imminent release of dangerous criminals. Life can still mean life in the most extreme cases, she said.
“Just because there is a tariff, that doesn’t mean they will automatically be released on that date. It is just the earliest date they can be considered for parole.”
She welcomed the implementation of the new law, which she said allows each case to be considered on its own merits and brings Cayman into line with international human rights law.
“Lots of people are of the view that life should mean life and I understand that view. This law is not just about setting everyone free, it is about protecting the rights of individuals and encouraging rehabilitation.
“Not all murders are the same. I think people see there is a difference between a young person who makes a mistake, has mental health issues or who acts in excessive self-defense, and a cold, callous case where someone acts with real criminal intent.”
George Roper, one of four prisoners released from a life sentence by order of the governor prior to enactment of the new legislation, said he believes the new regime will give people hope where previously they had none.
Mr. Roper, who was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted along with another man in the death of a prison employee in 1994, has always maintained his innocence. But he believes even those who are fairly incarcerated deserve a second chance at some point.
When he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, he said, it was a heavy burden.
“It is more than a burden, it is like the breath being taken away from your lungs. You feel like you are no longer living. That is how I felt,” he said.
“I am grateful to the community that has accepted me, and I am sure the other guys that were released are grateful as well.
“There have been several lifers released in the last two years. Some people thought it would be the end of Cayman, but that is contrary to what’s happened. These people are getting on with their lives as responsible law-abiding citizens. All of us are working, we are still in probation, we are trying to take care of ourselves and our families and patch up our lives.”
He said all of the released lifers had a privilege and a responsibility, which he was not taken lightly. Mr. Roper, who is developing a fishing business to give work to ex-convicts, continues to work with the Save our Youth foundation, which he established in prison. He said he believes people will respect the new law even if they do not agree with it.
“My opinion is everyone deserves a second chance, whether you are the president of the United States or a guy on the side of the road begging for a dollar,” he said.
Mr. Gough said there is enough flexibility in the law to ensure that the worst offenders remain behind bars.
He said judges can increase the tariff for life sentences from a starting point of 30 years based on various factors, including the level of pre-meditation, the level of suffering of the victim, and for sexually motivated crimes.
The tariff can be reduced under certain circumstances, including if an offender acted in self defense, did not intend to kill the victim, or if it was a mercy killing. Even when a prisoner reaches the tariff date, it does not automatically mean early release.
He said numerous factors, including the circumstances of the original crime and the psychological profile of the prisoner, would be considered before they were released into the community. Families of the victim will also get the chance to make representations at parole hearings.
“This is a very important change for Cayman,” said Mr. Gough.
He said there had been a lot of “human rights activity” on the issue, including a recent judgment in the European Court of Human Rights that life sentences without the hope of ever being released amounted to inhumane treatment. Had Cayman not altered its legislation, it likely would have been compelled to do so by the British government, he said.