Cayman Islands lawmakers are seeking to reimpose automatic life sentences in particularly egregious murder cases, except in situations where a court considers there to have been “exceptional” extenuating circumstances in connection with a killing.
According to proposed amendments to the Conditional Release Law, 2014, which the Legislative Assembly is expected to consider at its meeting later this month, life sentences must be imposed for certain types of murders.
Those crimes include: the killing of two or more people where substantial premeditation, abduction or sexual or sadistic conduct is involved; the murder of a child that involves abduction or sexual/sadistic conduct; a murder done on ideological grounds for political, racial, religious or other reasons; or a murder committed by someone who was already convicted of a separate murder.
In such circumstances, the amendment bill reads: “the period [of incarceration] shall be whole life before the prisoner is eligible for conditional release unless there are extenuating circumstances, exceptional in nature, in which case the court may impose a lower period of incarceration.”
The Conditional Release Law sets a general sentencing guideline for the courts of 30 years for the offense of murder, which can be increased or decreased at the court’s discretion if there are mitigating or aggravating factors involved.
Before the Conditional Release Law came into force in February 2016, all murders – regardless of the circumstances – necessitated a life sentence.
The latest amendments by lawmakers seek to give the local courts more specific guidelines on who must be sentenced to life in prison, based on the specific nature of the crimes committed.
The issue of life sentences for murder has a long history in Cayman. In 1991, the death penalty was the only available sentence for that crime, but it was abolished via an order in council of the British government and imprisoned killers were given automatic life sentences instead.
Fifteen years later, in 2006, the then-Human Rights Committee took up the case of six inmates serving life sentences at Northward Prison for various killings – most which had been committed in the 1970s and 1980s.
Committee members argued in a report to government that keeping all murderers imprisoned for life amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and “inhumane treatment,” and warned that the six “lifers” – as the convicted killers were called – would undoubtedly win their case if it was taken to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.
The Cayman Islands Constitution Order, 2009, officially gave the territory’s residents the absolute right to be protected from torture or inhumane treatment.
Four years later, in 2013, the Human Rights Commission warned that Cayman should change its rules around life prison sentences for murder or risk adopting a sentencing system being imposed on it by the U.K.
A year later, in 2014, the Conditional Release Law was brought to the Legislative Assembly and passed.
Within the bill’s memorandum of objects and reasons, it was stated: “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.”
At the time, there were 19 prisoners in Northward serving whole life sentences and many of them have now had their sentences reviewed and reduced from life imprisonment.