King-murders test case for life sentences: Johnson in court tomorrow to appeal life imprisonment

POSTED: 12/11/13 6:57 PM

St. Maarten – The Common Court of Justice deals tomorrow with the appeal of Meyshane Kemar Johnson against his life sentence for the murder of Michael and Thelma King on September 19 of last year. Co-defendant Jeremiah Chevon Mills is appealing his sentence ton 28 years and the third defendant in this case, Jamal Jefferson Woolford is looking for some reprieve from his sentence to 21 years.

For the family of the murder victims the life sentence for Meyshane Johnson is at the focus of their attention. The Court in First Instance sent Johnson sent away for life in May of last year and this ruling offered the family some sort of solace. However, developments in the legal field that took place since the verdict make it rather doubtful that the life sentence will hold up on appeal.

The Kings were sleeping in their villa at the Ocean Club in Cupecoy when the three criminals entered the place on September 19 of last year. Michael King was sleeping on a couch downstairs, while his wife Thelma was sleeping upstairs. The men has just robbed the Happy Star restaurant on Cannegieter Street in Philipsburg a couple of hours earlier and escaped by the skin of their teeth because they ran into a police patrol. Officers fired shots at the getaway car but did not manage to stop the vehicle.

While the initial plan was to rob the villa of valuables like money and jewelry, things turned ugly after the robbers woke up Michael King under threat of two pellet guns and a knife, asking him where the money was. While Johnson kept a knife on King’s throat, the other robbers went upstairs where they forced Thelma King first to open the safe and then to come downstairs with them. They tied the victim with a ripped towel to a chair and blindfolded and gagged her.

Michael King pleaded with the robbers not to kill them, but Johnson first stabbed him in the back whereby his knife broke and then cut his throat with a second knife handed to him by Jeremiah Mills. While Mills and Woolford left the villa, Johnson also stabbed Thelma King to death.

The gruesome murder shocked St. Maarten, but the King-family – bereaved by the loss of their loved ones –displayed a resilient attitude. “We clearly understand,” Todd King told this newspaper in an interview in April, “that it is three people who did this – not the island. All of us are hurting. These people are liars, thieves and murderers but that is not St. Maarten.”

After the appeal hearing there is a waiting period of three weeks for the verdict that is likely to come down on Thursday, January 2 of next year. Will the life sentence for Johnson hold up? The history of life imprisonment in St. Maarten does not bode well for those who never want to see the defendant walk the streets again as a free man.

The Common Court of Justice overturned the life sentences of Sherwan Roberts and Curtley Allison Richards in September of last year. Roberts and Richards killed three men during what solicitor-general Taco Stein called “three weeks of terror,” they repeatedly raped a young woman, ill-treated another one, and robbed three other men.

The appeal court judges referred in their decision to overturn the life sentence and to punish both defendants with 30 years instead, to a ruling by the European Human rights Court. This ruling notes that imposing life imprisonment is irreducible and therefore in violation of article 3 of the European Human Rights Treaty if there is no perspective for release.

That there is the option to ask for a pardon did not satisfy the court. Chances that such a request will be honored are extremely slim, the court ruled. And then there was this consideration: “It cannot be said that currently in Sint Maarten the social or political will exists to take the right to a pardon as point of departure for very serious crimes.”

In spite of this ruling, the Court in First Instance again handed down two life sentences in November of last year to gang leader Omar Jones and his hitman Carlos Richardson. Their appeal hearing is scheduled for Friday.

The ruling that could put the most pressure on the court to overturn the life sentence for Meyshane Johnson (and also those for Jones and Richardson) is the Vinter-arrest. This ruling from the European Human Rights Court came down in July and holds that the state must have dedicated mechanisms in place that regulate the perspective of release at the time of the conviction. This goes a step further than the standard option of asking for a pardon and the backdoor to freedom through a legal procedure.

Legal observers in the Netherlands have noted that a life sentence already violates the European Human Rights Treaty if these mechanisms are not in place. The parliament in St. Maarten added insult to injury last year when it took article 28 out of the draft criminal code. This article happens to be one of the instruments the European Human Rights court refers to: it gave lifers the right to a review of their sentence after 20 years.

The Constitutional Court has reviewed this decision by parliament and ruled recently that all references to life imprisonment have to be erased from the draft criminal code.

For now however, the old criminal code is still in place and the question the appeals court has in front of it is how it will deal with the current legislation in the face of these recent developments.

 

 

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