KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – As Vincentians express dismay about the number and types of homicides here, both Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves and Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace have reemphasised their support for the death penalty.
However, the politicians disagree about whether the proposed changes to the Constitution, rejected by Vincentians in 2009, would have stitched up legal loopholes associated with capital punishment — hanging.
In recent years, rulings by the London-based Privy Council, the country’s highest court for homicides offences, have made it increasingly difficult to execute Vincentians.
The legal body says that capital punishment should be reserved for the worst of the worst killings and that executing criminals after five years on death row amounts to cruel and inhumane punishment.
But while the 1979 Constitution remains unchanged, and notwithstanding the Privy Council’s rulings, the death penalty is still available to the nation’s judiciary.
Director of Public Prosecution Colin Williams underscored this point earlier this month but said that capital punishment cannot be applied in an emotional manner.
“The death penalty hasn’t gone anywhere,” he said as he described as “irrational and sheer emotionalism” citizens’ calls for murderers to be punished without due process.
So far this month, three women and one man have been killed here. Ingrid Jack-Franklyn, 36, and Hazel-ann James, 48, both died after each being shot in the head at Campden Park on Sept. 13. Last Sunday, Marion John, a 78-year-old widow of Fitz Hughes, was found dead in her home, believe to have been raped and killed.
These killings came on the heel of the stabbing death of Greiggs resident Stephanie Peters, 25, last month. And last Saturday, Silma Phillips, 48, of Georgetown survived an attack in which a man slashed her throat with a knife on the Grenadine island of Bequia.
Also this month, Redemption Sharpers resident Stefforn Williams told Searchlight newspaper that she killed Anthony “Brassy” Nero, 51, whose decomposing body was found in a sewerage tank near her home after being he was missing for about a month.
Gonsalves, who is also Minister of National Security and Legal Affairs, this month restated his support for the capital punishment, saying he is “a death penalty man”.
Eustace restated his position on Monday as he said there is no excuse for the types of killings in SVG.
“I am making it very clear, I support the death penalty. I am not making any joke about that. There are religious grounds for it and I believe that it is important to have that kind of deterrent,” the former prime minister.
But if Gonsalves, a criminal lawyer, had his way, the death penalty would be easier to enforce here, but, according to him, his hands are tied against making any changes to the Constitution.
“… I went to the public with a constitutional reform package to strengthen the provisions relating to the death penalty. It was a strong, tough position where certain offences would have been seen as of a particular serious kind, deserving the death penalty…. But the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines said ‘No’. They didn’t want the new constitution…” he told journalists earlier this month.
He further noted that unlike in some other Caribbean nations, it is impossible to adjust the death penalty outside of constitutional reform, adding that to do so in the Parliament would be unconstitutional.
The last hanging in SVG was in 1993, under the New Democratic Party (NDP) government. In 2009, the NDP led a successful campaign against the revised constitution — which included other provisions.
But Eustace this week dismissed Gonsalves statements about the Constitution and the death
penalty as “nonsense talk”.
“… all those talk about if you had accepted the constitution by the prime minister, all of that is a lot of nonsense talk,” he said.
“Because the death penalty has not been removed from the statute books here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. What has happened is that certain decisions have been made by the Privy Council, which bind our people. If you don’t get the thing settled in five years then you can’t hang the person anymore. But the death penalty is still here on our books,” he emphasised.
Meanwhile, Gonsalves told Vincentians in New York on Saturday that the state could only do so much, in terms of policing, to curb crime.
“We can do what we can in respect of the police investigations and so on and so forth – the legal system. But the recent three killings, which we had, from what is reported in the press, they have emerged out of not any gang activity or any criminal activity of burglary or anything,” he said.
He noted that the three cases prior to the elderly woman killed on Sunday seemed to have been the result of intimate relationships gone sour.
“These are what you may call absence of restraint killings. And these are matters, which everybody has to deal with them. The church, the families, the communities, individual themselves, that is the reality. And in a country, which is as small as ours, all of us have to pay attention to these matters,” he said.
Eustace is of a similar view, saying that while the death penalty “can help”, the solution needs to go beyond policing to includes all socials organisation.
“I just want to appeal again to parent, all members of our society — especially those of us who have come through a different kind of era and know what it meant to have murders being a rarity in our society, to know what it is not to hear almost every weekend about somebody being shot and in these cases, most of them are young people — something has to be done in this matter,” “ he said.