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Opinion: Life imprisonment

The public prosecutor’s office demanded life imprisonment against Omar J. and Carlos R. in the Vesuvius-trial yesterday. Some would see that as a daring move, given the fact that the appeals court overturned the life sentences of Regatta-killers Roberts and Richards on September 18 and converted them into 30 years. Will Omar J. and Carlos R.’s fate head the same way?
First of all, it is not at all certain that the alleged gang leader and hit alleged hit man will get a life sentence. The trial is not over yet. But the prosecution has put the option loud and clear on the table.
And what’s more, prosecutors announced that it has taken the appeal ruling to the Supreme Court. It could take two years – or maybe a bit less or a bit more – for the highest court in the Kingdom to take a decision. In the meantime, the Vesuvius-trial will run its course.
It will be interesting to see what will happen when defense attorneys do not manage to plead those life sentences down to 30 years or less and Judge Smid hands down the toughest punishment in the book.
Omar J. and Carlos R. will appeal such a verdict and that will most likely come before an appeals court of a different makeup than the one that threw out the life sentences of Richards and Roberts.
Basically the appeals court ruled in these cases that a life sentence means that a convict remains in prison until the day he dies and that this violates the European Human Rights Treaty. The court noted that a pardon is not impossible but that it is hardly ever granted for convicts with a non-life sentence and that it is not aware that it was ever granted to a lifer.
Then, the court made a remark that has been interpreted by observers as being on the edge of playing politics: “It cannot be said that the social or political will exists in St. Maarten to take the right to a pardon as the point of departure for serious crimes.”
That remark could refer to repeated statements from Justice Minister Roland Duncan that criminals ought to serve their sentence, their whole sentence and nothing but their whole sentence. Keen readers will understand that we’re paraphrasing here.
Another element that could have contributed to the court’s opinion is the decision by the parliament to take article 28 out of the new criminal code. That article gave lifers the right to a sentence review after twenty years.
The prosecution noted yesterday that any prisoner – whether he (or she) is a lifer or someone with any other lengthy sentence – still has options that offer a perspective to a life in the free world. One of those options is the road through the civil court, where inmates could petition for their release if they feel that keeping them behind bars no longer serves a purpose.
It is not surprising that the appeals court does not know about any lifer who received a pardon in St. Maarten, the prosecution pointed out yesterday. That is because Richards and Roberts were the first in the country to receive such a sentence.
The fact that a pardon was never granted does not make it an illusion that it will never happen in the future, the prosecution argued, adding that therefore imposing a life sentence in St. Maarten does not violate the European Human rights Treaty.
However, the prosecutor’s office is of the opinion that life sentences should not be given lightly. But the charges against Omar J. and Carlos R. do not justify a lower sentence, prosecutors said. They also took into account the defendant’s attitude during the trial.
When they refused to show up to hear the demands against them yesterday, prosecutor den Hartigh said that this was typical: they don’t cooperate with anything and they think they are above the law.
This is where we think the right to remain silent seems to play against the defendants. That should not be of course. If the law gives citizens a right, they are free to exercise it and it should not be held against them. The same goes for refusing to come to court. Unless a judge decides differently and orders a defendant to appear in court, attending a trial is a right. And suspects who do not wish to exercise that right should not be punished for this in any way.
This does not take away the fact that the charges are extremely serious. Whether they warrant life imprisonment is only up to the independent judge to decide. That is a task nobody will envy him for – but that’s the way our judicial system works.

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