Privy Council to hear arguments on Trinidad and Tobago’s death penalty

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

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OVER the next two days, nine British Law Lords will hear arguments for and against Trinidad and Tobago’s mandatory-death-penalty position and the “savings law clause” which prevents any colonial law in force at the time of Independence from being challenged for breaching constitutional rights and freedoms.

Death by hanging remains the mandatory penalty for murder in TT. In the appeal before the Privy Council convicted killer Jay Chandler is challenging the mandatory penalty.

Chandler was convicted and sentenced to death in 2011. His conviction and sentence were upheld by the Court of Appeal in 2013, and his appeal was dismissed in March 2018 at the Privy Council.

His sentence was eventually commuted to life in prison, but after the Caribbean Court of Justice’s reversal of two rulings on the mandatory death penalty in 2018, Chandler is now seeking to have this country’s final appellate court do the same in his case.

One of the two previous decisions of the Privy Council held that the savings law clause immunised the mandatory death penalty from constitutional challenge.

The clause has featured prominently in several local cases, including those involving challenges to the public health regulations, the recent challenge of sedition laws by the late secretary-general of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, Sat Maharaj, the constitutional claim brought by Trinidad-born UK LGBTQI+ activist Jason Jones and the consideration of a bail for murder challenge of a former murder accused.

Ahead of the Privy Council hearing, Jones and a UK parliamentary group of both Labour and Conservative MPs (All-Party Parliamentary Groups) held a press conference to address the savings law clause and its impact on the LGBTQI+ community. The group believes if the Privy Council upholds the savings law clause, it could spell a grim future for the LGBTQI+ community in TT, as it also protects the laws that discriminate against them.

A recent press release from the APPG said: “The savings clause is anathema to a modern humane society and we expect the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council to modernise its interpretation and reconsider its position in a modern society and its relationship to humane judgments in law.”

At a recent political meeting, Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi mentioned Chandler’s appeal as it related to the death penalty. Iin 2020, after Justice Frank Seepersad struck down parts of TT’s sedition laws in the Maha Sabha case, he said the ruling, if it stands, would set a bad precedent for other pre-Independence laws such as those mandating the death penalty and income-tax confidentiality.

He explained these laws were “saved laws” whose validity was not struck down by being inconsistent with the citizens’ rights granted under the Constitution.

Chandler was convicted of stabbing fellow inmate Kern Phillip with a hand-made knife in October 2004 after the two were said to have had an argument during visiting hours at the Remand Yard prison in Arouca.

At his appeal, his attorneys intend to present fresh evidence of a report from a forensic psychiatrist who has diagnosed him as suffering from episodes of psychosis to argue that his conviction and sentence were unsafe.