Justice Lisa Ramsumair-Hinds –
AN Arima man who felt he had no choice but to participate in the execution of a justice of the peace in 2008 has pleaded guilty.
Jason Wharton, 44, will serve another three years, eight months and ten days with hard labour after he was immediately sentenced by Justice Lisa Ramsumair-Hinds on January 30.
Minutes earlier, Wharton pleaded guilty to murder felony in a plea-deal agreement with the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Under the felony murder rule, the mandatory death penalty for murder is waived in circumstances where a death is the result of a lesser criminal offence being committed.
Wharton was charged with the murder of JP Winston Best, 80, between February 24 and March 1, 2008. Best’s body was found in San Juan, buried in a shallow grave. He was reported missing from his Morvant home on February 24, 2008. An autopsy found he died from strangulation and there was also a gunshot injury to the head.
Ramsumair-Hinds described Best’s killing as a brutish execution. She accepted the 30-year starting point suggested by the prosecution and defence in the plea deal – although she said it was low. After the various deductions Wharton was entitled to receive for the time he has spent on remand, his guilty plea, and his previous good character, he was left with three years, eight months and ten days.
Although Best’s daughter, in a victim impact statement, asked for Wharton not to be released from prison because of his lack of remorse and the family’s trauma, the judge said, “The idea of locking up people and throwing away the key is, frankly, not the reality. People who run afoul of the law eventually rejoin us in society.”
She said although the death penalty remained on the statutes for murder, it was not the reality.
“The reality is the opposite.”
However, she said the law has progressed so judges can now impose life sentences on felony murder cases. She said it was time for discussions that were “honest and aware of the reality and consider the public safety and security holistically and realistically.”
She told Wharton, “The remaining sentence will pass. Your release is imminent, it will come…
“It is my hope that when you rejoin us in society, you make changes for the greater good. I wish you all the best. Please be very circumspect of the choices you make.”
Earlier in her sentencing, Ramsumair-Hinds said Wharton, while awaiting trial for the murder, was “seemingly desperate” to plead guilty and was willing to face the hangman’s noose at trial and wait out the five-year Pratt and Morgan provision for those convicted of murder to have their sentences commuted to life.
She said had it not been for Wharton’s confession to the police, no one would have known Best’s last words were, “What a way to go.”
“We only know that because Mr Wharton bared his soul soon after the horrible act.”
On February 24, 2008, Best was reported missing after a man picked him up at his Morvant home, but he did not return.
Five days later, Best’s body was found buried at Quarry Road in San Juan. The car the man had used to pick up Best was found abandoned at a shopping centre in central Trinidad.
When police detained Wharton weeks later, he confessed to his role in the crime.
He claimed a group of men had asked him to arrange to pick up Best and deliver him to them.
He initially declined but changed his mind after the men threatened to murder him if he did not comply. He said he was told he had to “ride or die.” When Wharton went to Best’s home, he gave a false name and said he needed the JP’s services for an elderly and bedridden relative in Trincity. The judge said Best’s execution was an attempt to pervert the course of public justice, since he was expected to testify at a murder trial, but was killed days before.
Wharton said he delivered Best to the men and then abandoned the car he used. During the hearing, prosecutor Charmaine Samuel presented a victim impact statement from Best’s daughter.
She said her father’s murder had a lasting effect on their family, especially her mother, whose mental and physical health deteriorated.
She asked for Wharton to serve a lengthy sentence for the crime as he did not show remorse and declined to identify the people who instructed him to kidnap her father.
“I would hope the time served in prison would give him time to reflect on how his actions affected us,” she said.
Wharton’s attorney Wayne Sturge said his client wanted to plead guilty on several occasions, but could only do so after the DPP agreed to the plea deal.
“I ask the court to temper justice with mercy and allow Mr Wharton to make the best of the rest of his life,” Sturge said.
Wharton was also represented by Danielle Rampersad.