Legal Law

The Latest on Hangings in the Caribbean: Not Many! But too many!

I am an American law professor who has had the great opportunity in my previous career to have lived and worked in the Caribbean. I have also been against the use of the death penalty in the United States and I hope that one day the death penalty will be abolished in the United States as it has been in much of the world. While living and working in the Caribbean, I learned that many of the islands still impose the death penalty for murder. Executions are made by hanging. This is a barbaric practice that I would like to see ended.

Since joining the legal academy, I have had the opportunity to monitor legal trends regarding the death penalty in the English-speaking Caribbean. [hereinafter ESC]. The countries that included the CES are: Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados, Dominica, Bahamas and Suriname. Most Americans do not realize that for more than 20 years there has been a debate on the death penalty at CES about whether the death penalty should be abolished or maintained. Most Americans also do not realize that convicted murderers are hanged. The death penalty at CES is a holdover from English colonial rule. Ironically, England abolished the death penalty in 1991.

This article is not intended to be a gloomy report on the details of the hangings in the English-speaking Caribbean, but rather a report that should give us hope that, perhaps, the death penalty will one day be abolished at CES; and I hope that one day it will also be abolished in the United States. In essence, we are now seeing a decrease in hangings at ESC, which I consider a good trend. Although many travel to ESC for fun, sunbathing, and rum, many of the islands since the late 1990s have seen increases in crime and murder rates. Many CES citizens believe that the death penalty deters rampant crime and urge their governments to resist the abolition of the death penalty. Unfortunately, studies do not confirm that the death penalty deterred crime or murder.

Here is my report. I hope it serves as a basis for reflection. Amnesty International and other human rights groups report that more than half of the world’s countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. Specifically, Amnesty International reported in April 1998, 63 countries and territories had abolished the death penalty for all crimes, while a further 91 countries, some of which are in the CES, maintain and use the death penalty. Various human rights groups have denounced what they believe is a resurgence of the use of the death penalty in some of these ESC countries.

On October 15, 1998, at 8 am, Trevor Fisher, a 28-year-old black Bahamian citizen, was hanged within the walls of Fox Hill Prison in Nassau, Bahamas. An hour later, Richard Woods, also black, 51, followed Fisher to the gallows. Woods was also hanged. Both had been convicted of murder. Before the Fisher and Woods hangings, only two people, Thomas Reckley and Dwayne McKinney, both hanged in 1996, had been executed in the Bahamas since 1984. A local Bahamian newspaper reported that the last double hanging in the Bahamas was the September 6, 1983, when Lavan Newbold and Colin Evans were executed. Since 1942 there have been five double and two triple hangings in the Bahamas. The last triple hanging was on January 19, 1980, when Charles Dickenson, Vernal Storr and Winsette Hart were executed.

In June 1999, over a three-day period, Trinidad hanged drug dealer and convicted murderer, Dole Chadee, and eight of his co-defendants in a murder conspiracy case. These were the first executions carried out in Trinidad since 1994, and only the second since 1979. In July 1999, Trinidad carried out the execution of Anthony Briggs, bringing the total to ten executions for the year. All those executed were men. However, an April 1999 report by Amnesty International revealed that Trinidad was the only ESC nation with women on death row. There were seventy-six men and five women on death row in Trinidad. That same report further revealed that there were seven men on death row in Antigua, twenty-four men on death row in the Bahamas, two men in Barbados, one man in Dominica, twenty-three men in Guyana, eight men in Grenada, forty-three men on death row in Jamaica, three in St. Kitts and Nevis, nine men in Saint Lucia, and three men on death row in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. And then all was quiet regarding the hangings at the ESC until 2008.

On December 19, 2008, as the small island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis prepared to celebrate Christmas, prison bells rang in the heart of the capital, Basseterre. Charles Laplace had been hanged that morning for killing his wife five years earlier. This was the first execution at the ESC in eight years. The day before, the United Nations General Assembly had voted by 106 nations to 46 in favor of a global moratorium on the death penalty. Contrary to the trend of world opinion, the 12 countries of the ESC maintain the death penalty by statute. These countries constitute a substantial part of the enforcement lobby. However, hangings of late have been rare because most of the twelve CES nations still retain the London Privy Council, the judicial wing of the House of Lords, as the final court of appeal. The Privy Council ruled in 1993 that the gap between sentence and execution cannot exceed five years and successive appeals usually take longer.

So we are seeing fewer hangings at CES, hopefully this barbarous practice will soon end completely with an outright abolition of the death penalty at CES.

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