Opinion: Two life sentences

POSTED: 11/16/12 6:29 PM

The main players in the Vesuvius-trial may have thought that the life sentence the public prosecutor’s office demanded against them would come to nought because the appeals court overturned the life sentences of Regatta-killers Sherwin Roberts and Curtley Allison Richards in September based on the argument that a life sentence does not offer convicts any perspective.

Judge  Rick Smid had a surprise in store for gang leader Omar Jones and his hit man Carlos Richardson: he followed the prosecution’s demand. And what’s more: he served a bunch of arguments showing that it is very well possible to sentence someone to life and still offer a perspective for release at a point in the distant future.

The doubt whether life sentences will be upheld arose after the appeals court overturned the Richards and Roberts sentences. There were strong indications that the parliament’s decision to take article 28 out of the new criminal code had contributed to the court’s perception that life in prison in St. Maarten meant that convicts would be locked up and the keys would be thrown away.

But Judge Smid made clear in his ruling that convicts with a life sentence have realistic options to be free again one day and that therefore such a sentence does not violate the European Human Rights Treaty.

It is an interesting discourse that will no doubt get a follow up next year when the appeal court reviews the verdicts. The makeup of the appeals court will almost certainly be different from the one that overturned the Roberts and Richards rulings and the judges will have to consider the arguments Judge Smid put forth in his ruling.

Among his arguments are several examples of lifers who were released from prison. In 1954 a man named Sophia whose sentence went beyond life because he had been sentenced to death, was released after spending 25 years behind bars. In 1994 another lifer was pardoned in the former Netherlands Antilles because of health reasons.

Smid also notes in his ruling that St. Maarten does not have a history of life sentences. Never before was a life sentence imposed (and the two that were, were overturned on appeal). It is therefore impossible to say that the system of pardons is effective or not – it simply has never been tested.

For the next couple of months, Jones and Richardson will have to live with the idea that their life has basically ended with the verdict. If the appeals court overrules the sentences at all – and that chance is obviously always there – the best they may expect is a 30-year prison sentence instead. For Jones, who is 35, this means that he could get a look at early release by the time he is 55 – with no guarantees – and for the five year younger Richardson that moment arrives when he is 50.


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