• The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the final Court of Appeal of Jamaica, has found that a substantial miscarriage of justice has occurred and that the conviction of Lescene Edwards cannot stand.
• Lescene Edwards was convicted of murder in Jamaica in 2013 and sentenced to life imprisonment, with a minimum term of 35 years before he would be eligible for parole.
• London based NGO, The Death Penalty Project, based at Simons Muirhead Burton LLP, has represented Lescene Edwards, pro bono since 2019.
Today, Monday 4 April, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, sitting as the final Court of Appeal of Jamaica, delivered an important judgment overturning the conviction of Lescene Edwards for the murder of his partner Ms Aldonna Harris-Vasquez.
Ms Harris-Vasquez died on 5 September 2003, from a single gunshot wound to the head. Despite a suicide note being found near her body, the case had centred around whether Mr Edwards, who was arrested and charged with her murder, fired the fatal shot of if it was self-inflicted.
The prosecution alleged that on the night of 5 September 2003, Mr Edwards had visited Ms Harris-Vasquez, the mother of his two children, and shot her in the bathroom of her home, staging the murder to look like a suicide. Despite serious failings around the gathering and storing of essential evidence, a lack of adequate forensic expert testimony, and a trial delay of ten years, Mr Edwards was convicted of Ms Harris-Vasquez’s murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, with possibility of parole only after serving a minimum of 35 years.
In his appeal before the Privy Council, heard between 15-16 February 2022, Mr Edwards’s lawyers presented arguments that extensive delays in the trial and appellate process had breached Mr Edwards’s constitutional right to trial within a reasonable time. They also argued that there were serious deficiencies in the safety of Mr Edwards’s conviction and that a miscarriage of justice had occurred; during the initial police investigation vital evidence such as the clothes worn by Mr Edwards and the gun and holster had not been sent for forensic testing, and that other evidence, such as the clothes worn by the deceased had been destroyed by the police before trial. Mr Edwards’s lawyers also applied to have fresh evidence admitted by the Privy Council, including reports from ballistics, gunshot residue and blood spatter forensic experts.
Mr Edwards’ was represented by Kirsty Brimelow QC and Graeme Hall of Doughty Street Chambers, who were instructed by legal action NGO The Death Penalty Project at Simons Muirhead Burton LLP. Expert forensic testimony was provided pro-bono by Mr Mark Mastaglio, a ballistics expert and Ms Angela Shaw, a gunshot residue expert both at Forensic Firearms Consultancy and Ms Gillian Leak, a forensic consultant dealing with blood spatter evidence, at Principal Forensic Services.
Considering the admission of the fresh forensic evidence, The Privy Council today stated: “there is simply no satisfactory explanation of how the defendant could have managed to murder the deceased in the very confined space of the bathroom, then move the body, open the door and appear a very short time afterwards in the living room without any blood being seen on him or his clothes, and without any bloodstains or bloodied footprints being found anywhere outside the bathroom…There is a world of difference between a lawyer’s assertion that the prosecution theory is implausible and expert evidence that shows, in the words of Mrs Leak, that the suicide hypothesis is far more likely than the murder one.”
The lack of forensic evidence at the original trial was acknowledged as being a key factor in the conviction being unsafe. The Board noted: “There was no legal aid to enable Mr Edwards to have experts flown in from overseas at public expense…It is only because Mr Mastaglio, Ms Shaw and Mrs Leak (as well as solicitors and counsel for the appellant) are acting pro bono that the appellant has been able to adduce the fresh evidence before the Board.”
Saul Lehrfreund, Co-Executive Director of The Death Penalty Project who led the legal team, said:
“We are absolutely delighted that the conviction of our client Lescene Edwards has been quashed. The Privy Council has found that a substantial miscarriage of justice has occurred, and we are proud that we have been able to support Lescene and his family to finally secure justice. His case is an important one that serves to highlight how essential legal aid is to ensure a fair trial, especially in terms of securing adequate expert forensic witness testimony.”
Notes to editors
Death Penalty Project
The Death Penalty Project (DPP) is a legal action NGO based at, and supported by, London legal firm, Simons Muirhead Burton LLP. For more than three decades, the DPP has worked to protect the human rights of those facing the death penalty.
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Further details on the case
Following his conviction and sentence, Mr Edwards appealed to the Court of Appeal Jamaica. His appeal against conviction was dismissed but his sentence was reduced to 20 years imprisonment. Mr Edwards was represented in the Court of Appeal by Patrick Atkinson QC and Valerie Neita-Robertson QC.