Themes from Trinidad and Tobago

The death penalty occupies considerable public space for debate in Trinidad and Tobago. That much is evident from a remark in a column by Kevin Baldeosingh in the Trinidad Express (‘A law against distraction’, 5 August 2010), which references a recent law passed banning persons from talking on the phone while driving. In his column, Baldeosingh proposes a draft bill of its own:

‘While some chatting is allowed, drivers must choose topics which would not distract their attention. Safe topics include: Dancing with the Stars, green peas and plaid jackets. Dangerous topics include: capital punishment, free trade and whether small Coke is better than two-litre coke.’

The key themes to emerge from the sample of newspaper articles on the death penalty in Trinidad and Tobago were:

The theme of crime was a general issue in the sample, there were many articles and editorials on the crime problem. While many of these did not explicitly reference the death penalty, they all framed crime as one of the most serious issues facing the country.

In response to this, there were also articles which were critical of the death penalty as a solution to tackle violent crime. These articles focused on failings within the criminal justice system, such as delay and the inadequacy of police investigation procedures.

Sovereignty was also a theme of central importance. In some cases writers referenced the country’s colonial past and expressed resistance to the interference of outside bodies, such as the EU. Much of this surrounded the retention of the Privy Council as the final court of appeal, something which drew criticism from many.

Related to this, human rights arguments were outlined by some, but there was also some scepticism of this discourse.

However, expressed occasionally was a general opposition to the death penalty based on human rights and principled concerns.

The theme of cynical politicking emerged strongly throughout. Despite repeated efforts by those in government to resume hanging, there was criticism both from opposing parties and commentators that much of this was for show. Within this theme it was also noted that it is very difficult for politicians to take decisions which run counter to the popular feeling in the country.

Crime

One clear rationale for the resumption of hangings in Trinidad and Tobago is the rate of violent crime. This is cited as an explanatory frame in various reports which detailed efforts of politicians to reintroduce the punishment, for example in lines such as ‘As the country grapples with a murderous start to 2015’ (‘Help us bring hangman back’Trinidad Express, 10 January 2015).

However, Martin Daly in the Trinidad Express (‘Death penalty advice’, 5 March 2011), former President of the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago, writes that murder can never justify the mandatory death penalty:

‘prevailing levels of crime and violence, however great the anxiety and alarm they understandably cause, cannot affect the underlying legal principle at stake, which is that no one, whatever his crime, should be condemned to death without an opportunity to try and persuade the sentencing judge that he does not deserve to die.’

The Trinidad Guardian published a run of editorials on the crime problem, which is a focal concern for the newspaper. Although many of these did not reference the death penalty explicitly, they told of a very real concern for the high rates of violent crime in the country, and sought solutions that could ease the problem.

An editorial of 4 November 2015 (‘A new approach to crime’Trinidad Guardian) proposed a range of measures to more effectively tackle crime, such as better resourced efforts at rehabilitation, law reform and social protection measures. Various concrete measures include better resourced training for detectives, forensic teams, a properly supported Forensics Centre, and the rolling out of the drug court.

‘It’s time to get solidly behind the sputtering efforts at rehabilitation and restorative justice that have been struggling to find root in the prison system, projects that are designed to move minor and repentant offenders out of jail and into programmes that offer them an opportunity to improve their lives while making good on their mistakes.’

The editorial also notes the need for ‘meaningful work’ to ‘reintegrate lost souls’, and urges a more holistic approach, because the root cause of crime ‘isn’t a lack of policing or punishment’. This editorial concluded: ‘This country has been trying to beat crime by shooting back. It hasn’t worked’. This is an argument against meeting violence with violence.

One editorial (‘An excess of violent crime’Trinidad Guardian, 26 January 2016) framed violent crime as an epidemic, reflective of a sick society:

‘There is almost no place in T&T which is free of the level of violence that has been apparent for more than a dozen years now and showing no signs of easing. It is reasonable to conclude that this is not some outbreak of what may be considered “ordinary crime.” It is therefore not an errant individual here and there, but rather criminality feeding deep into the veins of the society.’

The editorial goes on to argue that effective measures must be developed to respond to these problems.

An editorial of 29 January 2016 (‘Government needs to get a grip on crime’) underlined the need for a ‘viable plan to reduce crime while simultaneously improving public confidence in Trinidad and Tobago’s law enforcement and criminal justice systems.’ It further mentioned, perhaps alluding to the death penalty, that reactions in the wake of particularly shocking murders ‘are the usual reactionary responses that have never worked.’

One editorial in the Trinidad Guardian (‘Crime a tough blow for Tobago’, 23 October 2015), deals specifically with crime on Tobago, and focuses on the negative impact of recent high-profile murders of European ex-pats living on the island. The central concern is the damage to tourism, and the consequences of high-profile murders which have ‘blackened the image of that island’. The editorial imagines a response in which business leaders are prominent:

‘There is no time to waste. The situation has been allowed to get too much out of control and the THA, business interests and tourism stakeholders must join forces to formulate effective public policies to reverse the current trend.’

Crime Prevention

Alternative approaches to tackling violent crime frequently implicitly acknowledge the ineffectiveness of the death penalty as a solution. However, there was some awareness that for many who support the death penalty, deterrence is not the rationale. Instead, many support hanging because of its retributive quality, rather than as a crime fighting measure: ‘there are those who are fully of the view that execution is not about preventing murders, but rather a punishment for such crimes as designated by the law’ (EditorialTrinidad Guardian, 22 December 2015).

However, alternatives were proposed throughout the sample of newspapers from Trinidad and Tobago. Various more holistic measures were suggested, although, as Clarence Rambharat (Trinidad Express30 April 2012) stated, there has been ‘an unwillingness to challenge the root causes of crime’ among politicians in Trinidad and Tobago.

One sub-category dealt with the failures of the criminal justice system to effectively deal with crime.

One editorial from the Trinidad Express (‘Prioritising justice’, 30 March 2016) outlined the dysfunctional nature of the criminal justice system. Writing after the escape of convicted murderer Sheldon Thomas from a psychiatric facility, the piece claims that the incident ‘has thrown yet another spotlight on the capacity of the justice system for delivering justice and the adequacy of its facilities for protecting the rights of the accused and the public.’

The editorial notes that Thomas had spent 11 years in prison awaiting trial. It further reveals that Thomas had made allegations of abuse and mistreatment against prison guards. The editorial states that this case is indicative of ‘the travesty that passes for a justice system in Trinidad and Tobago.’

The piece notes in particular the problem of delay:

‘Despite the court’s stoutly held view that the deprivation of the right to liberty is not a matter to be taken lightly, long-term incarceration without trial remains a commonplace feature of life in T&T, where justice delayed is justice denied to accused and victim alike.’

It further says that all are aware of the problem, and it has been debated at length, without any practical steps being taken. The editorial concluded that the provision of more resources was desperately needed, and a coherent plan to tackle the issue:

‘It is time to bring all the interests around the table to hammer out an integrated action plan backed by the resources needed to make a difference. Given the integral role that the justice system plays in the safety and security of all citizens, it is critical that a meaningful investment be made in addressing its problems of staff and equipment shortages and in eliminating the blockages that stymie the system.’

In an editorial in the Trinidad Guardian (‘Govt needs to get a grip on crime’, 21 September 2015) the problems of delay and of mental illness among prisoners are noted as:

‘the tip of a terrible iceberg of neglect and abandonment in the prison system, which remains robustly focused on incarceration of the guilty while paying lip service, at best, to concepts of rehabilitation and restorative justice.’

This editorial also makes reference to the cost of a system which is continually failing to reduce repeat offending.

Various articles also make reference to the low police detection rates as another serious issue in crime prevention.

In an article (Trinidad Guardian11 January 2015) outlining a political spat about the death penalty, it is reported that then leader of the opposition (now Prime Minister), Dr Keith Rowley, was critical of blind faith placed in the death penalty, and said that police detection rates had to improve or resuming hangings was useless.

Chief Justice Ivor Archie, in a speech reproduced in full in the Trinidad Express (16 September 2010), cautioned that ‘executions are not a panacea for what ails society’, and said instead, ‘that the problem generally is the low detection, prosecution and conviction rate.’

Alluding to the ongoing issues with police investigation procedures and allegations of coerced statements (see fuller discussion here), Kevin Baldeosingh in a satirical column for the Trinidad Express (‘A real emergency’, 15 September 2011), writes that the recent Emergency Powers Regulations (what he otherwise terms ‘Regulations to Allow Cabinet Ministers to Talk Tough’) will hold that ‘evidence’ ‘means proof that is sufficient for police to beat up suspects, but insufficient to stand up in court.’

Sovereignty

The issue of sovereignty recurred with frequency throughout the sample. For some writers, this was intrinsically linked to the country’s colonial past.

Julian Kenny, in a commentary piece in the Trinidad Express (‘With state killing on their minds’, 18 August 2009), noted that while aspects of Trinidad and Tobago’s culture are liberal, ‘it also an immensely conservative society that retains much general behaviour of its colonial past.’ Kenny was critical of the failure to break with this colonial tradition, encapsulated in the continued existence of the mandatory death penalty.

A letter in the Trinidad Express (22 February 2011) makes reference to the death penalty as a colonial legacy: ‘Capital punishment is indeed “the law of the land” but it is a cruel and barbaric legacy of slavery and indentureship, imposed throughout the then British empire.’

Issues of sovereignty, tied also to colonialism, were often present when discussing the retention of the Privy Council in London as the final court of appeal in Trinidad and Tobago.

Hostility to the retention of the Privy Council was evident in an editorial of the 22 December 2015 from the Trinidad Guardian (‘Decide on the death penalty on our own’), in which it was referred to as ‘the British Privy Council’. The editorial firmly calls for the country to decide the issue of death on its own:

‘Trinidad and Tobago like many other Caribbean countries needs to discuss to finality, with all options open, whether to execute or not. Sure the decision can be to abolish or execute but it must be one made by the institutions and peoples of the country.’

In one article, in which the Trinidad Express ran the full text of the speech from Chief Justice Ivor Archie (‘Why can’t we judge ourselves’, 16 September 2010), the Chief Justice called for the country to join the appellate jurisdiction of the Caribbean Court of Justice:

‘After 48 years of supposed independence, it astonishes me that there is even a debate about the whether the Caribbean Court of Justice – the CCJ – should be our final Appellate Court. If we have the moral and intellectual capacities to run our own countries in the region, why can we not judge ourselves?’

There was a considerable coverage of Chief Justice Archie’s speech. Responding to this speech, an article in the Trinidad Guardian (‘Death penalty debate “unsolvable”’, 21 September 2015) quoted Sophie Chote of the Criminal Bar Association, on the difficulty of the death penalty issue. Chote stated that ‘Even if there is meaningful debate on the death penalty, the conundrum legislators face on whether to abolish it will never be solved’, because it requires a consensus for action to be taken, yet the issue would remain a matter of conscience for many.

Chief Justice Archie’s speech received widespread coverage in the newspapers which ensured traction for many of his central arguments. In the Trinidad Guardian (16 September 2015), Rachael Espinet cited figures that the detection rate for murders was 10%, while the conviction rate was even lower. Derek Achong also covered the Chief Justice’s speech (Trinidad Guardian17 September 2015) and outlined the keys fact and arguments made by Chief Justice Archie, such as the Chief Justice’s remark that there were over 500 people on remand awaiting trial for murder, and question as to whether the nation could ‘stomach’ a wave of executions if hangings were resumed.

Responding to these comments, an editorial in the Trinidad Guardian (‘Common sense approach to crime needed’, 18 September 2015) casts some doubt on Chief Justice Archie’s faith in what the country can stomach, ‘Given that some people have called for public hangings in Woodford Square’.

It concludes:

‘Mr Archie’s speech has provided much food for thought. Unfortunately, ours is not a society where most people consider themselves mentally hungry, especially those people who are starving for intellectual nourishment. Or to summarise in popular idiom the CJ’s core message: common sense is not common.’

On the issue of the Privy Council, Michael Harris, writing in the Trinidad Express (‘A barren and desolate perspective’, 10 April 2011) was also centrally concerned with sovereignty, and likens globalisation to a new form of colonialism. Harris was very critical of the continued reliance on the Privy Council as the final court of appeal. Responding to the then Prime Minister’s comment in London that joining the appellate jurisdiction of the Caribbean Court of Justice, which actually sits in Trinidad, was not a priority, Harris writes that this ‘has to be one of the most frightening statements’ ever made by a Trinidadian Prime Minister.

Harris asks:

‘whether “justice” could ever be derived in a context in which the laws of the land are both interpreted and made by agents who have no connection with and are in no way subject to the people who are the objects of their law-making. Indeed that is fundamentally a description of colonialism and our dear Prime Minister has the nerve to ask what is wrong with that?’

Harris’s point is therefore about the imposition of law and judgments from judges drawn from outside the unique cultural heritage of the Caribbean.

Lawyer and academic Clarence Rambharat (‘Surrender to silliness’Trinidad Express, 30 April 2012) is very critical of the failure of successive governments of Trinidad and Tobago to grasp the issues left in the wake of Independence. He writes that, ‘Making the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) the country’s final appellate court should require no justification.’ He argues that a celebration of 50 years of independence is misleading, and that a ‘true celebration of self-determination’ would be ‘the crafting of a constitution which upholds the values of the society’.

Referencing the decision of the Privy Council in Pratt and Morgan, which held that a delay of five years between death sentence and execution was unconstitutional, Rambharat wrote:

‘After Pratt and Morgan, the former colonies were handed the challenge of defining their independence by reshaping and rewriting their constitutions. Instead they succumbed to the usual inertia, head-scratching, finger-pointing and inaction which are central to the post-independence experience. Ultimately Pratt and Morgan, the death penalty dilemma and the persistent crime are indicative of the inability to handle the tools of independence.’

Rambharat also deals with the government’s announcement that it intended to join the appellate jurisdiction of the Caribbean Court of Justice for criminal matters, while retaining the Privy Council for civil issues. Rambharat argues that this move ‘means side-stepping sensible data on the futility of the death penalty’ and represents ‘a failure of political leadership’.

Rambharat is therefore implicitly agreeing with other commentators who see the announcement on the move from the Privy Council as a cynical attempt to evade the Board’s rulings on the death penalty (see discussion of this here).

In an editorial in the Trinidad Guardian (22 December 2015), blame for the inaction on the issue of the death penalty is laid at the feet of ‘succeeding governments, institutions and the general population, to work decisively towards determining whether or not convicted killers should be executed.’

The editorial criticises the approach of groups it perceives as outsiders which attempt to impose from afar their own standards. The article was written after a conference on the issue, organised by the European Union, the editorial notes that the organisers were advocating abolition, for Caribbean nations to ‘fall in line’ with international norms.

‘However, there was little by way of an alternative option for Caribbean countries wanting to enforce the law on the death penalty in their countries; so it was not really a conference on options and perspectives from Caribbean states but rather an attempt to ensure that Caribbean states abolish the death penalty.’

The editorial therefore frames this as coercion rather than dialogue.

Kevin Baldeosingh writing in the Trinidad Express (‘A referendum referendum’, 3 May 2012) is very critical of the failure to implement a public information campaign on the issue, ‘thanks to radio talkshow hosts and holy books and herbalists, nearly everybody in the country knows everything about everything.’

Baldeosingh includes a humorous multiple choice question format, in his satirical attempt to provide information on the issue. One question, ‘Is the Caribbean Court of Justice a hanging court?’ has the possible answer: ‘Only for criminals who can’t afford a Senior Counsel.’

Another question asks ‘Why are 50 per cent of the Appeal Court’s decisions overturned by the Privy Council?’, and offers one answer as ‘Because the law lords are British half the time.’

Human Rights

The human rights discourse is also referred to in various articles. Selwyn Ryan (Trinidad Express5 March 2011) refers to the interference of various organisations when he discusses the difficulty of implementing the death penalty:

‘given the difficulties which the State has encountered as it seeks to vault the hurdles placed in its way by the Privy Council and the various international human rights agencies which seem determined to constructively abolish the death penalty in Trinidad and Tobago.’

This suggests an unwelcome and forced agenda.

However, in a piece by Clarence Rambharat (Trinidad Express30 April 2012), he is very concerned that moving criminal appeals to the Caribbean Court of Justice will be perceived from outside as a regressive move:

‘More likely this will be viewed as suspicion of judicial review and the influence of international human rights and a desire to take the path of likely least resistance than look for certainty, fairness and justice.’

In setting out the two sides of the debate in Trinidad and Tobago, one editorial in the Trinidad Guardian (‘Decide on the death penalty on our own’, 22 December 2015) refers to ‘an undoubted body of opinion among human rights organisations and a group of attorneys who are for the ending of the death penalty.’ This suggests those opposing the death penalty are small in number, and composed of ‘elites’.

Trinidad Guardian editorial from 22 December 2015 accuses the EU of hypocrisy: ‘while the humanity of the EU is well understood, the governments, the military and the economic powers of these same countries engage in activities every day which result in death and destruction of tens of thousands.’

Opposition to the Death Penalty

Despite the ambivalence with which human rights arguments were often treated, there was evidence of a more principled opposition to the death penalty.

There was some evidence of this in a letter printed in the Trinidad Express (22 February 2011), which was critical of the Constitution (Capital Offences Amendment) Bill 2011 which sought to entrench the mandatory death penalty. The letter writer argues ‘In the pursuit of justice, we must refrain from tarnishing our humanity.’

Julian Kenny, in a commentary piece in the Trinidad Express (18 August 2009) writes that the country is now in a minority of countries worldwide, and reminds readers that Trinidad and Tobago is now de facto abolitionist. He argues that ‘State killing is simply state vengeance on behalf of the electorate, and it creates more victims in society.’

In another column (Trinidad Express15 September 2011) Kevin Baldeosingh criticised the absurdity of the death penalty, ‘Citizens have the right to: call for executing prisoners in order to prevent killing’.

Likewise, the ongoing uncertainty provokes concern for condemned prisoners from one editorial, ‘Meanwhile left languishing on Death Row are dozens of individuals who do not know if tomorrow morning the hangman will knock on their cell gates’ (EditorialTrinidad Guardian, 22 December 2015).

Cynical Politicking

Politicians and successive Attorneys General in Trinidad and Tobago have all seemed determined to ensure the resumption of hangings. There is general scepticism about the efforts of government to respond to the rising crime rates. Instead, many writers suggest that government is instead advocating the use of the death penalty, to be ‘seen to be doing something’, merely to gain populist favour.

Julian Kenny (Trinidad Express18 August 2009) is critical of what he suggests is a cynical approach by government to the death penalty: ‘I get the impression that Government would dearly like to have a few so as to show that they are actually doing something about crime. Is it commitment or rhetoric?’

Likewise in an article of 11 January 2015 (Renuka Singh, ‘PNM supports death penalty’) in the Trinidad Guardian, there is another story about the death penalty being used as an ‘election tool’, this time the allegation was made by then opposition leader, now Prime Minister, Dr Keith Rowley.

In another article, Selwyn Ryan (Trinidad Express5 March 2011) accuses successive governments in Trinidad and Tobago of ‘playing mas [masquerade] with the hangman’s noose’, and of using the death penalty as an issue to score political points. In his article he quotes one statement by the Attorney General at the time to the effect that ‘for every murdered person, and every murderer that escapes the hangman’s noose, the PNM [the People’s National Movement] must be held responsible.’

Ryan also recounts how the PNM alleged that the introduction of the Bill to resume hanging was intended to change the conversation from an ongoing scandal about political appointments. Ryan closes by asking whether the government were ‘wilfully deceiving the country for a PR dividend’ through introduction of a Bill it knew had no chance of success.

The difficulty for politicians of taking action which flies in the face of popular sentiment was noted by some.

Quoting EU diplomats that ‘strong leadership’ was required on this issue, one editorial piece suggested that politicians ‘take the decision notwithstanding the position of their populace.’ The editorial concedes the difficulty for politicians taking decisions which run counter to populist sentiment (EditorialTrinidad Guardian, 22 December 2015).

Perhaps because of this, many reports outline the political determination to resume hangings again. One piece in the Trinidad Express (‘Help us bring hangman back’, 10 January 2015) reported on the efforts of the Attorney General to appeal for the return of the ‘hanging bill’ that was drafted in Parliament.

In an article by Shaliza Hassanali (‘Death penalty debate in the Caribbean’Trinidad Guardian, 20 December 2015) the moves by government to resume hanging are outlined:

‘If Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi plays his cards right, the death penalty could resume in T&T in six to nine months’ time. That is the time frame former Attorney General Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj estimates Al-Rawi needs to put measures in place for enforcement.’ Attorney General Al-Rawi signalled the establishment of a tracking system to look at cases which warranted capital punishment and where appeals had been exhausted.

This comes in the wake of the Caribbean regional Conference on Abolition of the Death Penalty, hosted by the EU, and the British High Commission, in Guyana, and demonstrates the resistance to such interference by the government.

An editorial in the Trinidad Guardian (‘The penalty of punishment’, 21 September 2015) notes that of 21 prisoners on death row in Trinidadian prisons, it was doubtful any would be executed as most had spent longer there than the Pratt and Morgan ruling allowed. It continued, ‘even if the government could muster the gumption and inevitable firestorm of international condemnation to resume the practice.’

Go to Themes from Barbados

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