Hit those who hide killers too
Defence attorney urges widening net for murders

In the wake of Prime Minister Andrew Holness's announcement that the Government will be bringing legislation to impose minimum 30-year prison sentences for murder convicts, prominent defence attorney Peter Champagnie says lawmakers must also contemplate stronger penalties for people who harbour killers and who know of the murders but fail to report them.

The attorney, in a letter to the editor of the Jamaica Observer, said the current two-year sentence for the offence of misprision of a felony (where an individual is aware that a crime has been committed but does not report it to the authorities) "is simply unacceptable".

According to Champagnie, whilst Holness's indications have caused onsternation in some segments of the bar, "for the prime minister to be giving thought to a mandatory minimum period of 30 years for murder conviction is not unreasonable", adding that "these members must be reminded of the fact that those who commit heinous crimes such as murder are not discriminatory in their actions and therefore none of us are immune to becoming victims".

He, however, said concomitant to the 30-year sentencing increase, there should "be stronger penalties for those found guilty of harbouring such persons and those who knowingly fail to report the dastardly deeds of such persons to the police".

CHAMPAGNIE... the people who commit heinous crimes such as murder are not discriminatory in their actions and therefore none of us are immune to becoming victims

Noting that Jamaica presently holds the unenviable ranking of the second country in the world with the highest murder rate, Champagnie said "anyone who has practised law long enough at the criminal defence bar, if candid, would have come across instances where, with disdain, a convict — after being given a light sentence — would respond privately by saying that the sentence is a 'cowboy lunchtime'."

In the meantime, the attorney, in underscoring a view expressed by other jurists with whom the Observer spoke, said consideration should be given to individuals who decide to plead guilty as against those who opt to go to trial under the proposed new sentencing regime.

"It cannot be that a person who pleads guilty to murder should be treated in the same way as another who did not plead guilty but is subsequently convicted of murder. The avenue for those who would wish to plead guilty must remain open and be an attractive one," Champagnie advocated.

"In the absence of this, there would be a real risk of all accused persons electing to have their day in court by way of trial. This would not auger well for reducing the backlog of cases. In any event, the infrastructure and human resources within our justice system could not manage this," he warned.

The attorney, in the meantime, said, "The focus of any 30 years mandatory minimum sentence for murder must be aimed at those who, in the commission of any murder, use illegal firearms."

"Indeed, the actions of those in this category are more than premeditated; it is a way of life for them. The strictest of penalties should therefore apply upon conviction. Provided due process is followed, the strictest of penalties should apply in such categories. Outside of this category, those found guilty of murder in circumstances where it arises from a domestic dispute should be eligible for the consideration of a judge's discretion to go below a 30-year period of incarceration," Champagnie argued.

"In this regard, the concern of the public of any judge imposing an unduly light sentence is easily treatable by what is now, in law, the ability of the prosecution to appeal such a sentence," he added.

He also said instances in which members of the security forces are found guilty of murder in factual situations which are not too far removed from the execution of their professional duties should not be forgotten.

"Certainly, a 30-year sentence in such instances would be unjust," the attorney declared.

He said that while the prime minister's "heart is in the right place…unqualified support for a mandatory minimum period of incarceration of 30 years for murder convicts cannot be the position if this is the ultimate destination".

"Until the position is settled, perhaps the immediate focus should be on improving the methods of policing and their investigation, with greater reliance on scientific and forensic evidence," he said.

Under the Offences Against the Person Act, a person can be sentenced to death or life imprisonment for murder. If sentenced to life imprisonment there must be a minimum 15 years before eligibility for parole. There have been no executions since February 1988.

On Tuesday Holness, while speaking in Parliament, said legislation would be brought to the House to amend the penalty.

"My thoughts on the matter, though not yet finalised, but the thinking is that we should give 30 years minimum for murder. The minister of justice has been directed to bring forward these changes immediately," Holness said, adding that his Administration is "very serious about murders".

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