I am an American law professor who has had the great opportunity in my earlier 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 hope that someday 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 came to learn that many of the islands still impose the death penalty for murder. The executions are done by hanging. This is a barbaric practice which I would like to see ended.
Since joining the legal academy I have had the opportunity to monitor legal trends with respect to the death penalty in the English-Speaking Caribbean [hereinafter ESC]. The countries that comprise the ESC are: Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados, Dominica, Bahamas, and Suriname. Most Americans do not realize a death penalty debate has raged in the ESC for over twenty years as to whether the death penalty should be abolished or retained. Nor do most Americas realize that convicted murderers are hanged. The death penalty in the ESC is a vestige of English colonial rule. Ironically, England abolished the death penalty in 1991.
This article is not meant to be a grim report on the specifics of hangings in the English Speaking Caribbean, but instead a report that should give us hope that, perhaps, someday the death penalty will be abolished in the ESC; and I hope also someday abolished in the United States. In essence, we are now seeing a decrease in hangings in the ESC – this I consider a good trend. Although many travel to the ESC for fun, sun and rum, many of the islands since the late 1990’s have suffered increases in crime rates and rates of murder. Many ESC citizens believe that the death penalty is a deterrent to rampant crime and urge their governments to resist abolition of the death penalty. Unfortunately, studies do not bear out that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime or murder.
Here is my report. I hope it provides food for thought. Amnesty International and other human rights groups report that over half the countries in the world have now abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Specifically, Amnesty International reported in April 1998, 63 countries and territories had abolished the death penalty for all crimes, while 91 other countries, a number of which are in the ESC, retain and use the death penalty. A number of human rights groups have decried what they believe to be a resurgence of the use of the death penalty in some of these ESC nations.
On October 15, 1998, at 8 am, Trevor Fisher, a black Bahamian citizen, age 28, was hanged inside the walls of Fox Hill Prison in Nassau, Bahamas. One hour later Richard Woods, also black, age 51, followed Fisher to the gallows. Woods was also hanged. Both had been convicted of murder. Prior to 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 on September 6, 1983, when Lavan Newbold and Colin Evans were executed. Since 1942 there have been five double hangings and two triple hangings in the Bahamas. The last triple hanging was January 19, 1980, when Charles Dickenson, Vernal Storr and Winsette Hart were executed.
In June of 1999, over a three day period Trinidad hanged convicted drug lord and murderer, Dole Chadee, and eight of his co-defendants in a murder conspiracy case. These were the first executions in Trinidad carried out 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. In that same report it was 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 on St. Kitts and Nevis, nine men in St. Lucia, and three men on death row in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. And then, all was quiet with respect to hangings in the ESC until 2008.
On December 19, 2008, as the small island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis prepared to celebrate Christmas, bells rang out from the prison 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 in the ESC for eight years. The day before, the United Nations General Assembly had voted by 106 nations to 46, for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty. Against the trend of world opinion, all 12 countries of the ESC retain the death penalty by statutes. These countries make up a substantial chunk of the execution lobby. Yet, hangings have been rare of late because most of the twelve ESC nations still retain the Privy Council in London, the Judicial wing of the House of Lords, as their court of final appeal. The Privy Council ruled in 1993 that the gap between sentence and the execution cannot be longer than five years and successive appeals usually take longer.
So we are seeing fewer hangings in the ESC, let us hope that this barbaric practice will soon end altogether with an absolute abolition of the death penalty in the ESC.