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Wenceslaus James

  • Trinidad & Tobago
  • Death Penalty; mandatory death penalty

On 3 June 1996, Wenceslaus and his co-defendant, Anthony Briggs, were convicted of the murder of a taxi driver, Siewdath Ramkissoon, and sentenced to the death penalty, the automatic punishment for murder in Trinidad and Tobago.

Over two decades on death row

Following his sentence, Wenceslaus would spend the next 23 years as a condemned prisoner, not knowing when his execution may be carried out.  On death row, he was subject to extraordinary conditions. In 1999, prison officers came to Wenceslaus’ cell and read out his warrant of execution. He was told Anthony Briggs would be hung and that he would then follow. Waiting in a cell opposite the gallows, Wenceslaus heard Anthony’s execution. For reasons still unknown to him, Wenceslaus was not executed that day.

Wenceslaus continuously sought to challenge his sentence. After exhausting his avenues of appeal in Trinidad and Tobago, Wenceslaus applied to appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) in the UK, which is the final Court of Appeal for Trinidad and Tobago. Wenceslaus was refused permission to appeal and in 1998, Wenceslaus wrote to the Advisory Committee on the Power of Pardon asking for his death sentence to be commuted, however he never received a reply.

In 2002, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found that a number of Wenceslaus’ fundamental rights were breached by the State during and after his trial, ordering that Trinidad and Tobago should abstain from executing him. 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.

Death sentence quashed

The Death Penalty Project first became aware of Wenceslaus’ story in July 2019. We then assisted Wenceslaus’ Trinidadian lawyers, Daniel Khan and Shane Kingston, who filed a constitutional motion challenging his death sentence.

On 8 June 2020, the High Court of Trinidad & Tobago quashed Wenceslaus’ death sentence. The Court held that carrying out Wenceslaus’s sentence after such an extraordinary amount of time would breach his constitutional rights. This was based on a legal precedent set by the JCPC in one of our early cases, Pratt & Morgan -v- The Attorney General of Jamaica [1994] which established that a prolonged period of detention under threat of execution amounts to cruel and inhuman punishment.

Wenceslaus will now be resentenced later this year, where it will be argued he should be given a term of imprisonment that allows for his immediate release in light of the unprecedented delay in his case.

Case Timeline

  1. Wenceslaus is arrested on suspicion of murder

  2. Wenceslaus is convicted of murder and given a sentence of death

  3. Court of Appeal in Trinidad & Tobago dismisses Wenceslaus’ first appeal

  4. Privy Council refuses Wenceslaus leave to appeal his conviction

  5. Anthony Briggs, Wenceslaus’ co-defendant, is executed

  6. Inter-American Court of Human Rights finds a number of Wenceslaus’ fundamental rights were breached by the State during and after his trial

  7. Court of Appeal dismisses Wenceslaus’ second appeal, after his matter was sent back for the Court to consider fresh evidence

  8. The Death Penalty Project becomes involved in Wenceslaus’ matter, assisting his local lawyers Daniel Khan and Shane Kingston

  9. High Court quashes Wenceslaus’ death sentence and orders he be resentenced

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