The seven-member panel of justices of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) arrived at the No. 1 Supreme Court in Belize City this morning for a historic first itinerant session in Belize. The CCJ is celebrating the tenth anniversary of its founding as final court of appeal for the region, while Belize is marking 5 years since acceding to the CCJ as final appellate jurisdiction. The Court’s first case was a criminal appeal in which convicted murderer 28 year old Gregory August sought special leave to appeal his case to the CCJ. He was successful and becomes the subject of Belize’s first criminal appeal to the court. August was convicted of the murder of physically disabled resident of Western Paradise 73 year old Alvin Robinson nearly six years ago in May of 2009. Courtenay argued the case and explains the basis for the appeal.
“As far as the case is concerned, I am representing Mr. Gregory August who was sentenced to life imprisonment on bases of a conviction of murder – life imprisonment without the basis of parole. So we had applied to the CCJ for permission to appeal to the CCJ and to challenge the sentence. One of the grounds is that we had put in our notice… in the application, was that it is unconstitutional to sentence somebody to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. When we went into the court to start making the application, the court immediately said to me,’Mr. Courtenay, we are concerned about section 7 of the Constitution, that is, that this man has been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. So they felt that that is something that the court of appeals should consider because when his first appeal was brought, that was not in the court of appeal… so they are saying that the court of appeal should look at that. What they did was to grant special leave for him to challenge his conviction; two, send the matter back to the court of appeal to deal with the question of sentence and the question of a court character and direction, and that the matter must be heard as quickly as possible. Once it has been heard and a decision has been handed down, it well then go back to the CCJ for us to challenge the whole substantive conviction and sentence.
August is accused of stabbing Robinson, who was both physically disabled and blind in one eye, 9 times in his face and neck. Robinson was found on his bed clinging to life and died while on his way to the hospital. On November 21, 2012, August was convicted of Robinson’s murder by a jury in the courtroom of Justice Adolph Lucas. The evidence at the trial was circumstantial and the prosecution had relied on blood that was found on a tennis shoe and clothes that belonged to August. The blood matched Robinson’s blood type, but Belize does not have the capability to test the DNA of the collected blood samples to see that they did in fact match Robinson. At the hearing in the March 2014 session of the court, August’s then attorney Anthony Sylvestre, argued that the circumstantial evidence was insufficient in itself to tie his client to the crime and that Justice Lucas failed to properly direct the jury on the legal concept of “joint enterprise”, as it was alleged that August and another unknown person killed Robinson. The case now goes back to the Court of Appeal for argument of additional evidence, most particularly the constitutionality of August’s sentence as Courtenay explains.
Eamon Courtenay, SC – Attorney for Gregory August
“The constitution as you know, section 7 of the constitution says no person should be subject to cruel inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Now here is a young man in his 20’s, who has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The reason for a sentence is, one, deterrence, and two, to ensure that the person pays his debt to society but also to allow that person to reform himself or herself. Now if you do not have a chance of coming out of prison even if you change your life, even if you have served 20 years, even if you are a good and modelled prisoner. The question is, what purpose is your continued imprisonment serving and we say that it is unconstitutional. It is cruel and inhuman to send somebody to prison who has changed his on her life incompletely reformed. Completely rehabilitated himself or herself but can’t get out. The Belize advisory council rules section 52 of the constitution and the parole rules, do not provide any avenue for Mr. August to change his life, to reform himself and to come out of prison. So we are saying that, that is unconstitutional and that is what we will be arguing for the court of appeal.”
Director of Public Prosecutions, Cheryl Lynn Vidal, represented that office and elected not to challenge the leave in order to seek clarity of the issue of circumstantial evidence leading to convictions as well as settlement of the Constitutional issue. Courtenay says similar cases have been taken to the European Court of Human Rights and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the CCJ’s predecessor, which they hope prove persuasive at the lower court and before the CCJ. The court will also hear the appeal of the Maya Leaders Alliance and alcaldes of Toledo against the Government in relation to the rights of the Maya to land in that district on Wednesday. Belize is one of four Caribbean countries to use the CCJ as its final court of appeal. The Court is meeting at the Supreme Court of Belize in the chamber of Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin.