Under a new law that came into effect in February, a life sentence passed by a Cayman court on a person convicted of murder must be for a specific period.
Until 1991, the death penalty was the only sentence upon conviction for murder in Cayman. Local authorities were in the process of having a gallows built at Northward Prison when the U.K. announced that the death penalty was being abolished in British Caribbean Dependent Territories. The mandatory sentence for murder then became imprisonment for life.
There was no means by which people convicted of murder in Cayman could seek early release or have their sentences reviewed after a period of time. Their only option was some representation to the governor, who had discretionary powers under the Prisons Law, to order the release on license (specific conditions) of a prisoner serving a life sentence.
After a review of the issue in 2006, attorneys on Cayman’s Human Rights Committee (as it was then known) concluded that laws imposing life sentences for all types of offenses of murder were contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as other international human rights treaties.
The Cayman Islands Constitution of 2009 included a Bill of Rights, Freedoms and Responsibilities. Article 3 states: “No person shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
In 2013, attorneys for a man convicted of murder filed a petition with the Grand Court on the grounds that the sentence of life imprisonment amounted to “inhuman and degrading treatment” and therefore breached human rights guaranteed by the Cayman Islands Bill of Rights. The lawsuit sought to establish a legal precedent that would end the policy of automatically sentencing murderers to serve the rest of their lives in prison. Its success would have given murderers the right to have their sentences reviewed.
Also in 2013, the renamed Human Rights Commission issued a report that concluded unequivocally that 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.
At the time, there were 19 people serving life sentences for murder at Northward Prison.
Legislators grappled with the issue and after debate passed the Conditional Release Bill in October 2014. Among the bill’s memorandum of objects and reasons was this statement: “It is now considered inhuman and degrading punishment for any person to be incarcerated for the rest of his life without the possibility of ever being released …. All prisoners serving what used to be whole life terms must have a specified term of imprisonment.”
The new law introduced a system that sets general guidelines for the release of all prisoners on license conditions. In order to put the provisions of the law into full effect, a nine-member Conditional Release Board had to be appointed and transitional arrangements had to be put in place. The law came into effect on Feb. 15, 2016.
The law requires that a judge impose a specific term before a prisoner can be considered for parole. For murder, the term is 30 years before the person is eligible to apply for release, subject to exceptional extenuating or aggravating circumstances.
The first sentence for murder under this regime was in May, in the case of Tamara Butler, who killed her six-year-old daughter in October 2014. Justice Alistair Malcolm explained the process by which he arrived at the length of Butler’s prison term. He started with the prescribed 30 years, then raised it to 34 years because of the mental and physical agony the child must have endured while being stabbed 35 times as she tried to run from her mother. He then considered Butler’s paranoid personality, which he said lowered her degree of culpability; he reduced the 34 years by six to reach 28 years. Finally, he deducted the one year and 174 days Butler had been in custody. The specific period before Butler can apply for conditional release was therefore set at 26 years and 191 days.
On Dec. 19, Justice Charles Quin passed sentence in the case of Justin D’Angelo Ramoon, 25, and Osbourne Wilfred Douglas, 30, who were convicted of murdering Jason Charles Powery on the night of July 1, 2015, in the vicinity of the Globe Bar on Martin Drive, off Shedden Road. Citing the exceptional aggravating circumstances and the need for deterrence, he imposed a term of 34 years on Douglas, 35 years on Ramoon. Both will receive credit for 522 days in custody.
For prisoners sentenced to life before the law came into effect, the law requires that their case records be sent to the Grand Court for a specific sentence to be pronounced in public within two years. Retired Justice Alexander Henderson has returned to Grand Court for preliminary hearings involving persons convicted of murder in trials he presided over, but no new rulings have yet resulted.