This article was originally published in Trinidad and Tobago News Day, 17 November 2023.
Having spent 24 years on death row and over three decades in custody, Wenceslaus James – the longest-serving death row inmate in TT – has been released.
A statement from the Death Penalty Project – a legal NGO out of the UK that lobbies for prisoners facing execution – announced James’ release.
He was released on Tuesday on an order by Justice Devan Rampersad, who was tasked with his resentencing after his death sentence was quashed by another judge in 2020.
In June 2020, Justice Eleanor Donaldson-Honeywell quashed James’s death sentence in a constitutional motion in which he claimed the delay was cruel and unusual punishment. She granted the order and quashed the death sentence, referring the matter to the registrar to have it docketed before a judge in the criminal division.
It was assigned to Rampersad. James’ attorneys, Daniel Khan and Harrynarine Singh asked the court to sentence James to “time served” and free him. James is now 58.
On June 21, 1996, James and Anthony Briggs were convicted of the murder of Siewdath Ramkissoon, which took place on August 24, 1992. Ramkissoon’s head was smashed with a sledgehammer. Briggs was 25 at the time and James much younger. They hired Ramkissoon to take them to central Trinidad, and while on the way, they asked him to stop on a deserted road and smashed his skull with the sledgehammer so they could rob him.
They were sentenced to death. Briggs was executed in 1999, and although the death warrant was read to James, he was not executed but had remained on death row since then.
Rampersad said the court had to consider all the instructive reports and weigh all the factors, including the interest of justice, before considering an appropriate sentence.
In his order, Rampersad imposed a 32-year sentence, after which he applied a one-year discount. He said since James had spent 31 years, two months and 21 days in custody, his sentence has already been served, and he should be released forthwith.
He ordered James to contact a probation officer within one week and to remain under supervision for two years.
On June 3, 1996, Wenceslaus and his co-defendant, Anthony Briggs, were convicted of the murder of a taxi driver, Siewdath Ramkissoon, and sentenced to death, the mandatory punishment for murder in TT. James was arrested for the murder of August 21, 1992.
The Death Row Penalty’s release said after the death sentence was imposed after he was convicted, James spent two more decades on death row, “not knowing when his execution may be carried out.
“Living next to the gallows on death row, he has been subject to extraordinary conditions.”
It spoke of a near-death experience in 1999 when prison officers went to James’s cell and read out his warrant of execution.
“He was told that his co-defendant Anthony Briggs would be hanged and that he would then follow. Waiting in a cell opposite the gallows, Wenceslaus heard Anthony’s execution.
“At the very last minute, without explanation, Wenceslaus was taken back to his cell. For reasons still unknown to him, he was not executed.”
The release also gave James’s reaction.
“I could see the rope and hear the snap of the trapdoor. It still haunts me. I feel sick and weak. It was the most horrible experience of my life,” James purportedly said.
While on death row, James challenged his sentence. After exhausting his avenues of appeal in TT, the Death Penalty Project said he applied to appeal to the Privy Council but was refused permission in 1998.
He then wrote to the Advisory Committee on the Power of Pardon, asking for his death sentence to be commuted. He never received a reply.
In 2002, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found that several of Wenceslaus’ fundamental rights were breached by the State, both during and after his trial, ordering that TT should abstain from executing him, the UK-based legal NGO said.
“Despite this, Wenceslaus remained on death row, where he felt like a forgotten man. Some media outlets even reported he had been executed with Anthony Briggs.”
Briggs’s execution, on July 28, 1999, was the last in TT. It followed the hanging of Dole Chadee and his henchmen on 4, 5 and 7 June 1999.
The Death Penalty Project – which began as a few lawyers at the London law firm of Simons Muirhead Burton, first dedicated to working on death penalty cases in the Caribbean and now more than 30 countries around the world – said it began assisting James in 2019.
Working on the case was UK barrister Amanda Clift-Matthews and his local attorneys, Daniel Khan and Shane Kingston, who filed a constitutional motion challenging his death sentence.
Justice Donaldson-Honeywell ruled in 2020, and since then, the Death Penalty Project said James had been awaiting the decision of the High Court to be resentenced, which took place on Tuesday.
“Wenceslaus was convicted under the felony-murder principles. Had his case been heard now, based on the current law, the death sentence would not be mandatory, and he would be sentenced to a fixed term of imprisonment.”
Saul Lehrfreund, co-executive director of The Death Penalty Project who led the legal team, said, “We are delighted with the decision of the High Court to release Wenceslaus.
“Having served such an extraordinary amount of time and suffering on death row, there was a clear breach of his constitutional rights. Trinidad and Tobago is the only country in the Commonwealth Caribbean to continue using a mandatory death penalty, and the government themselves accept the mandatory imposition of the death penalty is cruel and inhuman punishment.
“We have worked extensively in TT for more than three decades and will continue to do so and focus our efforts on legislative reform until this barbaric practice is abolished.”
In a June 1999 statement, Amnesty International had this to say about Brigg’s execution, “In scheduling Anthony Briggs to be hanged, the authorities of Trinidad and Tobago have once again shamelessly violated international human rights obligations and national courts’ rulings.”
“It is shameful that the authorities are seeking to hang Anthony Briggs when legal redress, including commutation of his death sentence, may be exercised for violations of his human rights.
“The government of Trinidad and Tobago has once again taken steps to erode the system for human rights protection in the region, which has been built up over the past 50 years,” the human rights organisation added.
According to a report prepared by the prison for James’ resentencing hearing, he spent 25-plus years in the condemned section with limited and restricted interaction with others. It said he was “intrinsically motivated to change.”
A TIMELINE OF JAMES’S LEGAL HISTORY (Provided by the Death Penalty Project)
August 21,1992: James is arrested on suspicion of murder
June 3, 1996: He is convicted of murder and given a sentence of death
March 6, 1997:Court of Appeal dismisses his first appeal
October 2, 1997: Privy Council refuses him leave to appeal his conviction
July 28, 1999: Anthony Briggs, his co-accused, is executed.
June 21, 2002: The Inter-American Court of Human Rights finds a number of James’s fundamental rights were breached by the State during and after his trial
March 12, 2003: The Court of Appeal dismisses his second appeal, after his matter was sent back for the court to consider fresh evidence
July 2019: The Death Penalty Project becomes involved in his matter, assisting his local lawyers Daniel Khan and Shane Kingston
June 8, 2020: Justice Eleanor Donaldson-Honeywell quashes his death sentence and orders he be resentenced.
November 14, 2023: Justice Devan Rampersad orders his release after ruling he has served his time.