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Attorney to Government: Make up your mind about the death penalty

  • DPP in the Media
  • 17 Nov 2023

This article was originally published in Trinidad and Tobago News Day, 17 November 2023.

DANIEL KHAN, the attorney instrumental in the release of Wenceslaus James, the longest-serving prisoner on death row, said Government needs to decide on the death penalty.

He made the statement to Newsday on Thursday while speaking on the five-year battle for James’ release.

“This is clearly an example of why Government needs to examine whether they are keeping the death sentence as a lawful sentence in the country, and if they are not, to take immediate steps to reforming the law on suitable punishment for those who are convicted of murder.”

He said the Criminal Bar Association is preparing submissions to forward to a Joint Select Committee chaired by Port of Spain South MP Keith Scotland on the need to categorise murders and to pass legislation which would properly define different types of killings. He added that the association is also making submissions that the sentencing commission should be set up once again.

“Not all killings are the same. There are issues such as self-defence, provocation, mental health, that the government needs to examine and consider legislative reform.”

He said, at the moment, sentencing is the responsibility of the judiciary, but the judiciary bases its sentence on legislation, which is decided by the Government.

“And the government takes, or ought to take, instructions from society,” he said. “Therefore, the Sentencing Commission can act as the medium by which the public is consulted on how best to reform these laws on sentencing. It ought not to be left only to the views of judges and legislation. People need to be consulted on the death sentence and how we treat those who kill.”

James was released on November 14 after being convicted of the murder of Siewdath Ramkissoon, a 23-year-old taxi driver whose head was bashed in with a sledgehammer by James’ cellmate and co-defendant Anthony Briggs during a robbery.

James was sentenced to death along with Briggs, who was the last man to be hanged in this country.

James was supposed to be hanged along with Briggs in 1999, but his execution was stopped. He remained on death row.

The court considered several factors in the case, including the risk of offending and the time spent in prison. During the re-sentencing, the courts looked at a victim impact statement in the bio-social report. The impact statement revealed that even after 29 years, the family was still broken over Ramkissoon’s death.

Relatives remembered Ramkissoon as a loving, hard-working and ambitious person who worked in Caroni 1975 Ltd during the day and plied his vehicle for private hire in the evening.

In the report, one relative said she feared for the safety of her family if the accused were to be released. The relative said that James knew what he was doing when he decided to take part in Ramkissoon’s murder.

However, Khan, while speaking on an online series, said he believes that judges based their decision on the lesser role he played in Ramkissoon’s death and that he has been rehabilitated.

“It’s been a case we’ve been fighting for five years, and I can say at least for this client, I believe he is rehabilitated. I believe that while it is hard to sympathise with a killer – someone who took part in a murder, it was a testament that perhaps our system can offer rehabilitation and perhaps, someone can reintegrate into society.”

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