Ruling on King-murders puts life in jail again on the agenda

POSTED: 12/30/13 12:54 AM

St. Maarten– This afternoon, the Common Court of Justice will rule on the Ocean-case – the brutal murder of Michael and Thelma King on September 19 of last year. It is not must another court ruling, because the main suspect, Meyshane Kemar Johnson, is facing a life sentence and the case has become the litmus test for the admissibility of life imprisonment in St. Maarten.

There has been a lot of discussion about life imprisonment this year –in rulings of the Constitutional Court, the European human Rights Court and the Dutch Supreme Court. Not all these rulings point in the same direction, though the Constitutional Court has ruled that St. marten has to remove all references to life imprisonment from its draft criminal code, while the European Human Rights Court ruled in July in the Vinter arrest that life imprisonment is only admissible if certain conditions are met.

Those conditions are that a life sentence must offer a perspective on release, based on dedicated mechanism that must be in place at the time of the conviction. Re-socialization must also be part of these mechanisms. Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten and his state secretary Fred Teeven have made clear that at least in the Netherlands nothing is done for lifers in this respect. According to the European Human Rights Court, that is a violation of article 3 of the European Human Rights treaty. Based on this, the court declared life imprisonment inhumane if these conditions are not met.

In the case at hand, where Meyshane Johnson killed both Michael and Thelma King in a gruesome manner, this question becomes not opportune. Unlike in the Vesuvius-case, where Omar Jones and Carlos Richardson got away from life imprisonment because the appeals court acquitted them of two murders, there is not a chance that Johnson will be aqcuitted of his crimes.

The question is, does it warrant life imprisonment? Jones and Richardson are held responsible for the murders of Miguel and Rodolfo Arrindell, for attempts on the lives of Omax Bye and Kennedy Fergus, for illegal firearm possession and fro membership of a criminal organization.

Jones is on the hook for two murders, and the robbery at the Happy Star restaurant. There is of course a distinct difference between the Vesuvius-murders and the ocean-murders. The Arrindells were executed in a row over control of the local cocaine market; the Kings were killed by a man few would consider sane way after a home-robbery.

Another case that comes to mind concerns the Regatta-murders. During what solicitor-general Stein called “three weeks of terror” between February 25 and March 5, 2011 Richards and Roberts killed three men – Ludovic Guillevin, Eduardo Nova Valdez and Foidel Louis – repeatedly raped a young woman, ill-treated another one and robbed three other men.

The Court in First Instance sentenced the two men in December 2011 to life imprisonment, but the appeal court ruled against in in September 2012: 340 years instead of life.

“The question arises whether the proven facts and their consequences are so serious that imposing a temporary prison sentence is insufficient and that therefore life imprisonment must be imposed in accordance with the demand by the solicitor-general,” the judges wrote in the Roberts and Richards rulings.

The judges referred at the time to a ruling by the European Human Rights Court that says, “imposing life imprisonment is “irreducible” and therefore has to be considered as incompatible with article 3 of the Human Rights Treaty if the convict is reprieved of any perspective for release. Life imprisonment means in fact that the convict in principle remains detained until his death and that he will not return to society.”

The judges acknowledged that lifers have the option to ask for a pardon. “That cannot be excluded, but the court considers the chance (that such a request will be honored – ed.) extremely slim, given the fact that lifers are rarely granted a pardon and that the court does not know of any case wherein a request for a pardon by a convict who is sentenced to life imprisonment has been granted.”

The judges also involved the social and political situation in St. Maarten in their ruling: “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.”

The court furthermore noted that is does not know of any case wherein a convict with a life sentence went to the civil court to ask for a ruling about the legality of the (further) execution of his sentence, or a case where in such a convict submitted a request ex article 43 of the code of criminal procedures. Said article is a request for early release.

“The solicitor-general has pointed out that the draft of the new criminal code contains a provision for a review of a life sentence after twenty years, but in this case the current legislation has to be the point of departure and that legislation does not contain such a provision.”

The judges added to this remark that it is also uncertain whether a review will reach “the status of positive legislation.”

The court used these considerations to supports its “extreme reluctance” to impose life sentences, also taking into account that Roberts is now just 21 and Richards 32. “Imposing a life sentence is only then in order when after the passing of a lengthy temporary prison sentence the realistic fear exists for a repeat of similar crimes.”

The judges concluded that there are “insufficient concrete reasons” to fear that the defendants will commit similar crimes in the future thirty years from now.

Here is the kicker: two of the three judges that were too reluctant to send Roberts and Richards for life to prison for committing three murders – Selma Verheyen and Edward van der Bunt –

are also on the bench for Meyshane Johnson’s appeal. Whether this will give the prosecution an argument – like being predisposed against life imprisonment – in case the ruling goes against locking up Johnson for the rest of his life, is a question for the solicitor-general to consider.



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