Guyana’s Court of Appeal will today hear a historic legal challenge which will question the constitutionality of capital punishment itself. The case, spearheaded by legal action charity, The Death Penalty Project, could see Guyana become the final country in South America to abolish the death penalty and influence other retentionist countries in the Caribbean and the wider Commonwealth.
In 2013, three former Guyana Defence Force Coast Guards, Devon Gordon, Deon Greenidge and Sherwyn Harte, were found guilty of the robbery and murder of Dweive Kant Ramdass. At trial, the judge exercised the discretion available to him and imposed death sentences on all three defendants.
The men will now challenge their sentences and convictions at the Court of Appeal, in what is set to be a landmark hearing, which if successful could not only see capital punishment abolished in Guyana, but has potential to spark a domino effect across other countries that still retain the death penalty.
Acting for the appellants, CA Nigel Hughes from Guyana and Douglas Mendes SC from Trinidad & Tobago, will argue that the death penalty is unconstitutional; submitting that the punishment is arbitrary, irrational, disproportionate, and contrary to the constitutional principle of the rule of law.
Saul Lehrfreund, Co-Executive Director of The Death Penalty Project, said:
“This is a hugely significant case – the first challenge to the constitutionality of the death penalty in the Commonwealth Caribbean that could pave the way for abolition across the wider region. It had previously been assumed that the constitution protected the death penalty itself from judicial challenge, but the appellants now contend that the death sentence violates core principles of the constitution and cannot be imposed on anyone for any crime. We hope the judges will grasp this opportunity to consign capital punishment to history.”
On 11th January 2021, the Court of Appeal granted the appellants leave to introduce fresh evidence at the hearing of their appeals. The Death Penalty Project facilitated the submission of expert reports from leading academics Carolyn Hoyle, Professor of Criminology at the University of Oxford, William Schabas, Professor of Law at Middlesex University and Jeffrey Fagan, Professor of Law at Columbia University. They have provided evidence on the unavoidable risks of arbitrariness in any capital punishment system; that the imposition of the death penalty has no bearing on homicide rates; and that Guyana’s international obligations prohibit the state from resuming executions.
Although no executions have been carried out since 1997, Guyana has continued to impose death sentences. There are currently 14 prisoners under sentence of death in the country, all of whom would be removed from death row and resentenced should the appeal be allowed and the death penalty declared unconstitutional.
The case will be heard by The Hon. Justice of Appeal and Chancellor Madam Yonette Cummings-Edwards, The Hon. Justice of Appeal Madam Dawn Gregory, and The Hon. Justice of Appeal Mr Rishi Persaud.
The Legal Team
CA Nigel Hughes instructed The Death Penalty Project (DPP) to support the appellants’ legal team and DPP instructed UK barristers from Doughty Street Chambers, Edward Fitzgerald QC, Joe Middleton, Ruth Brander and Pippa Woodrow, to assist with the preparation of the appeal.
The arguments will be presented by Douglas Mendes SC from Trinidad & Tobago. All the lawyers are assisting on a pro bono basis.