Privy Council throws out death sentence against Maurice Bishop’s killers

by Peter Ischyrion

ST. GEORGE’S, Grenada, February 8, 2007 – Grenada celebrated its 33rd anniversary of political independence from Britain on Wednesday with the usual pomp and ceremony befitting such an occasion.

But for 13 former political and military officials, February 7 could also mark the turning point in their efforts to be released from prison more than 23 years after they were convicted of murdering the island’s first left-wing Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and members of his government in a palace coup.

Ironically, their freedom could come through the intervention of an institution that Grenada and other Caribbean countries still regard as a remnant of the colonial era and are now seeking to replace with the region’s own Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).

The ruling by the London-based Privy Council that the death sentences imposed on the 13 men, including Bishop’s own deputy, Bernard Coard, and the head of the then People’s Revolutionary Army (PRG) Hudson Austin, are invalid and that they should be re-sentenced was greeted with much enthusiasm by the lead defence lawyer for the group, Trinidadian Keith Scotland.

Scotland, who said he would be traveling to Grenada on Thursday to discuss the new developments with his clients, says he will ask the Grenadian courts to set an immediate date for the re-sentencing.

”I am totally gratified and I feel that we have at least taken a step in the right direction and that justice has been done in this case,” he said.

”The Privy Council has vindicated our position, which from the outset was that anything to do with the sentencing should have been done by a competent impartial court,” Scotland told reporters.

On Aug. 15, 1991, Grenada’s governor-general commuted the death sentences to life imprisonment on condition that each of the convicted men would be ”kept in custody to hard labour for the remainder of his natural life.”

In their 12-page ruling, the five Law Lords agreed that the governor general was not legally empowered to amend the sentence.

”The validity of the life sentence substituted by the warrant of commutation is dependent upon the validity of the sentence of death. In the absence of such a sentence, the Governor-General has no power to order that the appellants be imprisoned for life and the appellants therefore remain held in detention without lawful authority,” they ruled.

Coard and the 12 other appellants were among 17 people, including Coard’s wife, Phyllis, who were convicted of murdering Bishop and other members of his left-wing administration in October 1983. The killings brought to an end Grenada’s flirtation with a popular but undemocratic government that had ousted the Sir Eric Gairy administration in the English-speaking Caribbean’s first ever coup.

Last December, three of the convicted men were released after spending 23 years in jail. Phyllis Coard has been out of prison for the past two years seeking medical treatment for cancer.

The men had also gone to the Privy Council contending that the imposition of the death sentence was unconstitutional, and in its ruling the Privy Council noted that the state did not contest that point.

The British Law Lords pointed to several cases involving other Caribbean states with similar constitutions to Grenada’s, and noted that upon the true construction of the Grenadian constitution, such a sentence was unconstitutional at the time it was passed in 1986.

”The result is that section 230 of the Criminal Code must be interpreted to mean, and has meant since the Constitution came into force in 1974, that the death penalty for murder is discretionary: a person convicted of murder may be sentenced to death but may instead be given a lesser sentence. The judge did not exercise this discretion and the sentence was therefore unlawful.”

”There appears to be no adequate mechanism in Grenada for providing the appellants, even now, with the judicial sentencing procedure to which they were entitled,” the Law Lords wrote. ”The only prospect of a review of the sentences is by means of the exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy, which depends entirely upon executive discretion.”

In addition, the Privy Council noted that the prison rules require that the Board of Review review the life sentences of all prisoners after the first 12 months have been served and thereafter at four-year intervals, but this not appear to have been done in the appellants’ case.

In their 12-page judgment calling for re-sentencing, the Privy Council noted that ”perhaps most important is the highly unusual circumstance that, for obvious reasons, the question of the appellants’ fate is so politically charged that it is hardly reasonable to expect any Government of Grenada, even 23 years after the tragic events of October 1983, to take an objective view of the matter.”