Constitutional Court asks for more information: Interim-ruling addresses life sentence perspectives

POSTED: 08/16/13 1:16 PM

Constitutional Court

From left: Ombudsman Dr. Nilda Arduin, attorney Richard Gibson Jr., legal advisor General Affairs Maarten van Rooij and Constitutional Court registrar Maritsa James Christina follow the pronouncement of the interim ruling at the courthouse. In the background are attorneys Monique and Bert Hofman, Parliament President Gracita Arrindell and Justice Minister Dennis Richardson. Photo Today / Leo Brown

St. Maarten – The Constitutional Court will pronounce its verdicts on all issues the Ombudsman submitted for constitutional review on October 18, two-and-a-half weeks after the original target date of September 30. The delay is due to an interim-ruling Justice Bob Wit pronounced yesterday afternoon about the parliament’s decision to take article 28 out of the draft penal code. This article gave prisoners with a life sentence a perspective on conditional release after 20 years in cases where the Court of Appeals rules that continued imprisonment would no longer serve a reasonable purpose.

The Constitutional Court-ruling refers to a ruling by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights of July 9 that shows “clear support for the institution of a dedicated mechanism guaranteeing a review no later than 25 years after the imposition of a life sentence, with further periodic reviews thereafter.” The European Court concluded that “where domestic law does not provide for the possibility of such a review, a whole life sentence will not measure up to the standards of article 3 of the human rights convention.” This article prohibits torture and “inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.”

This newspaper reported extensively about the European Human Rights court ruling in its issue of July 17.

Justice Bob Wit noted in his ruling that there is a “well-nigh similarity” between article 3 of the European Human Rights convention and article 3 of St. Maarten’s constitution. This article states “No one may be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhumane or humiliating treatment or punishment.”

The Constitutional Court requests in its ruling both parties – the government and the Ombudsman –  to file written submissions that address “the possible implications of the European judgment.”

These implications could come into focus this fall when the Common Court of Justice dealt with the appeals in the Vesuvius-trial. The Court in First Instance sentenced two men to life sentences on October 15 of last year – Carlos Richardson and Omar Jones.

The Constitutional Court invites the government and the Ombudsman to file their written submissions no later than September 6 and to include answers to six different questions the court specified in its ruling. Both parties have until September 27 to file written replies to each other’s submissions. After that, the Constitutional Court will take two-and-a-half weeks to render judgment on October 18. That judgment will cover all issues the ombudsman has brought before the Constitutional Court.

The Court wants to know how many prisoners are currently serving a life sentence in St. Maarten and how much of their time they have already served. Furthermore, the court inquires if lifers have asked for a pardon, what the results were of these requests and whether any such decision differed from the advisory opinion of the sentencing judge.

The Constitutional Court furthermore refers to article 118 of St. Maarten’s constitution that says that “a pardon shall be granted by national decree.” However, as far as the Court knows, there is no such national decree. “Are efforts being made to establish this ordinance and if so, what is the status of this piece of legislation?”

In the explanatory notes with the amendment that took article 28 out of the penal code, the government “explicitly referred to the possibility of requesting a pardon in order to have even a life sentence reduced in the course of which procedure the personal circumstances of the prisoner are to be taken into account.”

The Constitutional Court wants more information about this statement. It wants to know whether the government is in a position to affirm “that it intends to express the view that a pardon will be granted if in the terminology of (an article in) the Dutch Gratiewet “on a balance of probabilities it can be assumed that with a continuation of a prisoner’s detention no reasonable penological purposes will be served” or, in the words of the European Court “continued detention can no longer be justified on legitimate penological grounds?”

It is quite a mouth full, but basically the Constitutional Court wants to establish that St. Maarten will grant a pardon in cases where continued imprisonment no longer serves a reasonable purpose.

Justice Bob Wit, the President of the Constitutional Court, read the interim-ruling from Curacao via a video-conference connection to the parties present in the downstairs courtroom in Philipsburg. Justice Minister Dennis Richardson was among the audience.

Justice Wit called pronouncing this first interim-ruling of the Constitutional Court a historic event. “It is our first ruling, but it is also the first ruling in English,” he said, “When there was a court in St. Maarten for the first time in 1869 it was decided that everything had to be done in Dutch. The problem was that none of the judges at the time understood Dutch.”

The Court’s registrar, Maritsa James-Christina distributed copies of the interim-ruling both in the Dutch and the English language immediately after Justice /Wit concluded his presentation.

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