How can we ensure that long term sentences are imposed fairly and are proportionate?
Working to improve access to justice, a recent case that encapsulates this issue is Roger Watson v The King, The Bahamas. In April 2023, Mr Watson appealed to the Privy Council against his 50-year prison sentence with the help of The Death Penalty Project and a team of Barristers from Doughty Street Chambers, arguing his sentence was manifestly excessive and should be reduced. On 5 September 2023, the Privy Council accepted our appeal.
Mr Watson was sentenced to death in 2007 for murder. Mr. Watson fired a rifle at a house killing a young person inside the home. Appealing to the Court of Appeal in The Bahamas in 2009, his murder conviction was quashed, and therefore his death sentence overturned and substituted with a conviction for manslaughter. The Court of Appeal decided that Mr Watson did not intend to kill anyone, a crucial element for murder convictions in The Bahamas. The Court described the offence as “reckless” but that “recklessness was not the mens rea for murder.” Nevertheless, Mr Watson spent over a year on death row.
The Court of Appeal substituted the death sentence with a lengthy 50-year prison sentence for manslaughter. However, Mr Watson was denied the opportunity to argue for a lesser sentence nor was he given the benefit of a full re-sentencing hearing, highlighting considerable issues of procedural fairness.
In yesterday’s judgment, the Privy Council determined that Mr Watson had been denied basic due process rights by the Court of Appeal. He had not been permitted to address the court on the appropriate length of sentence and the court had simply failed to explain why a 50-year sentence was appropriate and proportionate in Mr Watson’s case.
A serious breach of procedural fairness
The judgment affirmed that “a criminal court has a duty to give a defendant the opportunity to be heard, through counsel or otherwise, before sentence on him is passed.” The Privy Council observed that the failure to hear from Mr Watson’s legal representative before passing the 50-year sentence was “a serious breach of procedural fairness.”
Sentences for manslaughter in The Bahamas generally range between 18 years to 35 years. Mr Watson’s sentence of 50 years, some 15 years more than the highest sentence for manslaughter recorded in The Bahamas, was well outside this range, with no explanation given as to why this was appropriate.
The importance of transparency in sentencing
Quashing the Court of Appeal’s decision, the Privy Council described Mr Watson’s sentence as “draconian” and the failure to give reasons for an unusually lengthy sentence was a “further denial of a fundamental procedural right.”
The Privy Council’s decision underscores the importance of courts hearing from those convicted before determining and passing sentence. Particularly, as noted in the Privy Council’s judgment, so that those convicted are “aware of the gravity of [his] wrongdoing” as well as vital information for further grounds of appeal.
Not only is transparency important for the defendants but sentencing courts also fulfil a number of social and penological aims. The victims and families of the victims should also be aware of the reasons behind a sentence and deserve an explanation for the punishment given. Transparency in sentencing also serves the interests of wider society, facilitating understanding of how criminal courts engage with serious crime and the factors which the courts think worthy of condemnation.
Commenting on the judgment, Saul Lehrfreund Co-Executive Director of The Death Penalty Project said:
Mr Watson’s case highlights the importance of the work we do as an organisation, strengthening criminal justice systems and trial procedures so that justice is not just an empty principle but a reality. Mr Watson spent 20 years in prison serving an excessive sentence and over an entire year on death row, only for his original sentence to be overturned. His case highlights the need for proportionate and consistent sentencing helping to develop a more ‘humane’ justice system.
Mr Watson’s 50-year sentence has now been quashed and his case will be remitted to the Court of Appeal of The Bahamas for an appropriate sentencing exercise.
Without transparency in the sentencing process, how can we ensure that sentences are imposed fairly and are proportionate?
The legal team
Mr Watson was represented by Paul Taylor KC, Amanda Clift-Matthews and Daniella Waddoup of Doughty Street Chambers instructed by The Death Penalty Project.