LLOYD Forrester, the man who was convicted for murdering St James mechanic Valentine Stephens and injuring his daughter during a 2005 home invasion, is to now serve 24 years, instead of 25, before he can apply for parole following an appeal against his sentence on grounds that the 14-year pre-trial delay was a breach of his constitutional rights.
Forrester was found guilty of murder contrary to common law and wounding with intent in 2019 and sentenced to life imprisonment without eligibility for parole before serving 25 years for that murder and 25 years' imprisonment for the wounding. The sentences were set to run concurrently.
Forrester was arrested and taken into custody for the offence on March 10, 2005. He was tried and convicted in June 2019 and sentenced on December 10, 2019.
According to evidence led during the trial, in March of 2005 Forrester and another man invaded the home of Stephens in Rose Heights, St James, where Forrester, who was armed with a gun, on the instructions of the other man, shot the Stephens 'multiple times'.
Stephens, according to the evidence, had just finished assisting his two children with their homework when he was fatally shot.
His daughter was injured by one of the bullets. Forrester was apprehended by the police as he attempted to flee the scene in a motor vehicle. A firearm was found by the police on the seat. Scientific evidence confirmed that the firearm seized was the one used to carry out the shootings.
Forrester, in appealing his sentence, argued among other things that the trial judge failed to consider the delay before the case was heard and determined and that the judge should have dismissed the case on the principle of delay and should have given credit for the breach of his constitutional right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time.
He further argued that the judge erred when he stipulated a period of 25 years before parole for murder and that the judge failed to appreciate the proportionality in sentencing for different offences in sentencing him to 25 years for murder and 25 years for wounding with intent.
The Appeal Court, in its response to Forrester's submissions on delay, said, "The learned trial judge would have had no basis in the circumstances to dismiss the case against the appellant solely on the basis of delay".
Furthermore the court said, "The issue of delay or breach of the appellant's constitutional rights was never raised before the learned trial judge at the trial in June 2019".
In assessing the delay arguments further, the appeal judges noted that on the first trial date Forrester refused to plea.
It said the second trial was aborted during the summation stage as one of the jurors had to be discharged after her brother was gunned down the night before. On the third trial date, Forrester was seen signalling a member of the jury after empanelling was completed.
The fourth and final trial date was in June 2019, nine years after the third failed attempt. The Appeal Court said, "While the delay of nine years could be considered egregious, based on the history and circumstances" it did "not accept that the case should have been dismissed without a trial proceeding".
The judges, however, said while they did not consider that the post-conviction delay excessive, bearing in mind the exigencies of the court's list, "The seeming delay of 14 years and three months prior to trial is alarming".
The Appeal Court in assessing the reasons for the delay said it had concluded, "That the State would be responsible for nine years and two months of delay", noting "a delay for such a lengthy period is egregious".
The judges in the meantime said, "In the final analysis, although [they] had to engage in the resentencing process for the offence of murder, [they did] not find that the sentence of life imprisonment with 25 years before eligibility for parole could be said to be manifestly excessive".
In relation to the offence of wounding with intent however, the appeal court judges noted that the normal sentencing range is between 15 and 20 years, with 15 years being at the low end and 20 years being at the high end.
"The circumstances of this case do not justify a starting point above the usual range, as would have been used by the learned trial judge," said the Appeal Court judges.
They said they would use the statutory minimum of 15 years as its starting point and taking account of the aggravating and mitigating factors, together with a consideration of the time already spent in custody, reduce Forrester's sentence for that offence to the statutory minimum of 15 years.
The Appeal Court in the ruling handed down last Friday in the meantime said it had found that, "The learned trial judge erred in regard to sentencing by his failure to demonstrate how he arrived at the penalty imposed for murder".
It said the trail judge also erred in regard to the sentence imposed on the appellant with respect to wounding with intent and said Forrester's right to a trial within a reasonable time, as guaranteed under section 16(1) of the Constitution was breached as a result of the lengthy period that it took for him to be tried for the offences of murder and wounding with intent.
The court, in affirming the life sentence imposed, set aside the stipulation that the appellant is to serve 25 years' imprisonment before becoming eligible for parole and substituted it with the stipulation that he serve 24 years before becoming eligible for parole given the breach of his right to be tried within a reasonable time.