Opinion: Reason for alarm

POSTED: 09/19/12 1:43 PM

From life to thirty years with the perspective of early release after twenty years. That is the result of the ruling by the Common Court of Justice in the vase of the Regatta-killers Richards and Roberts.
Whether this ruling will stand the test of time is still an unanswered question because the solicitor-general is currently studying the verdict before taking a decision about cassation at the Supreme Court in The Hague.
The Supreme Court will not look at the facts of the case, but at possible flaws in the decision by the appeals court. This is a very specific procedure and it is no use to speculate about a possible outcome – especially because a decision about going to the Supreme Court has not been taken yet. That the highest court in the Kingdom will not look at the facts again hardly matters because Richards and Roberts confessed to their crimes.
Still, the fact alone that the appeals court lowered the sentences from life to 30 years is reason enough for some alarm. The surviving victims of the two criminals and the family of those who did not survive may have found some comfort inn the fact that Richards and Roberts would be behind bars for life.
In May, parliament took article 28 out of the draft criminal code. The article gave convicts with a life sentence the right to ask for a review of their sentence after 20 years. It appears now that the Common Court of Justice has used this decision as an argument to mitigate the two life sentences. There is no social or political will in St. Maarten to acknowledge the right to a pardon for serious crimes, the court ruled.
While it is debatable whether the court should take such a consideration into account, the fact is that the decision by the parliament to get tough on criminals with a life sentence has backfired. It seems that, as long as politicians in St. Maarten want to be so tough on criminals that they prefer to lock them up and throw the key away, no court will ever sentence anybody to life imprisonment.
Now it gets even worse: with a temporary prison sentence to their name, Richards and Roberts will qualify for early release after serving two-third of their sentence. By the time this decision comes up, Justice Minister Duncan will have left office a long time ago, and one of his successors will have to deal with the situation. But according to the attorney for 21-year- old Roberts, the justice minister will have no say in the matter, and the early release will be a matter of fact by the time 2031 rolls around. And because the two killers and rapists have no legal status here, they will be kicked out of the country.
Had the parliament thought a bit longer about its decision, the appeals court could have decided to stick to the life sentences. After all, the crimes Richards and Roberts committed during their three weeks of terror are bad enough. What more must a criminal do to earn a life sentence?
And if the life sentences had held up on appeal, the two convicts would only have the right to ask for a review of their sentence after twenty years. Now they will both go home after that time, come hell or high water.
And it is not so that a life sentence does not offer convicts any perspective: they would have had the right to the review after twenty years but they are also free to ask for a pardon at any time – be it after 1, 5, 13 or 25 years. Another option is to go to civil court with the argument that prolonged detention no longer serves a purpose.
The argument of the appeals court against this option is that it is seldom granted and that it knows of no case wherein a lifer took the initiative to go to civil court.
So what? When you are behind bars for the rest of your life you have nothing better to do than think about what you are going to do next. And if it does not enter someone’s head to go to court, even though this option is open, than that is a choice that ought to be respected instead of being used as an excuse for not imposing a life sentence.

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