Understanding the Law
July 13, 2012
An historic case – Part 3

A sentencing matter in the Court of Appeal

This article concentrates on the judgment by the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal in Newton Spence v the Queen, No 20 of 1998 on the issue of sentence. It turned out to be a very long judgment with groundbreaking results. The justices did not merely indicate their assent or dissent to the Chief Justice’s judgment, but actually gave reasoned version.{{more}}

The matter was consolidated with another case from St Lucia, No.14 of 1997, Peter Hughes v the Queen. They were similar in that both defendants were found guilty of murder and were sentenced to death and both cases raised constitutional arguments of the mandatory death sentence at the Privy Court level, but not at the Court of Appeal level. The Privy Council, therefore, sent back the matter to our own Court of Appeal for its consideration. The two sides were prepared to argue for “the mitigation of the death penalty”.

The Court of Appeal consisted of Chief Justice Sir Dennis Byron, Albert Redhead JA and Adrian Saunders, JA. (Acting), which gave a decision of two against one. The dissenting voice was that of Justice Albert Redhead. In their deliberation they decided to use the constitution of St Lucia instead of that of SVG, perhaps for convenience, as there are no significant differences between the provisions of the law. According to Chief Justice Byron “ the language and structure of the constitution of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines are almost identical and in my view the minor variations do not result in any differences in meaning.”

When the Law Lords remitted the matter to the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, leave was given for the justices to consider and determine “whether (a) the mandatory sentence of death imposed on the appellants should be quashed and if so what sentence (including death) should be imposed or (b) (whether) the mandatory sentence of death imposed ought to be affirmed.” The Justices Byron and Saunders agreed with the former, while Justice Redhead concluded with the latter. The challenge was made towards the constitution and the Justices were required to look at the issue of construction of the constitutional provisions and to decide whether the mandatory death penalty contravene any of the provisions. The principle of “construction” takes into consideration words and their meaning.


The Chief Justice delineated four heads to guide his deliberation. For each of these heads he identified the appropriate section in the constitution, which comes into play. In brief the issues raised are whether there was anything in the appropriate section to prevent a challenge to the mandatory death sentence; whether the mandatory sentence contravenes the protection that the constitution gives against the arbitrary deprivation of life; whether the mandatory death sentence contravenes the constitutional protection against torture or inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment and whether it contravenes against the constitutional principle of the separation of powers. The “mandatory death sentence” is described as the automatic sentence of death for the crime of murder without any mitigating consideration. That is once a person is found guilty of murder, the death sentence would be the automatic punishment.

Chief Justice Byron, after listening to arguments on both sides and examining some relevant cases, ordered that “conviction for both appellants be quashed and the sentencing be remitted to the respective High Court, in keeping with the terms of the judgment.” In another article, I would highlight some aspect of the reasoning in the Chief Justice’s judgment and that of the two other justices.

Ada Johnson is a solicitor and barrister-at-law.
E-mail address is: [email protected]