Twenty Years Ago Today: Whose Death Penalty Is It Anyway?

nooseTwenty years ago today, a stay of execution was given in the case of two absolutely vile men. Lincoln Guerra and Brian Wallen had been convicted of terrible crimes. They had attacked a young family with machetes and knives, raping Leslie Ann Girod before slitting the throats of her and her seven month old baby. Her husband, Brian, was left severely wounded in the attack, but managed to survive and crawl away for help. His testimony condemned the two killers, and there was no doubt as to their guilt. This terrible crime happened in 1987, on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. Such a senseless murder carries an automatic death sentence on the island, though the authorities there were usually loath to actually hang anyone, and generally kept condemned men on death row - until the week before this, when the commissioner of police said that they should break some necks to bring the crime rate down. Guerra and Wallen were given no more than three days notice that their sentence was to be carried out.

They would surely have hanged, but for one small detail in the legal apparatus of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. They had once been part of the British Empire, and still retained a part of the British legal system as their final authority on matters of law. Which is to say that their court of final appeal was the Queen herself. She rarely troubles herself with such details, instead delegating them to "The Queen in Council", which means the Privy Council, which means... well, basically, a bunch of judges and lawyers in London who have the final say over legal matters in islands that are otherwise completely independent.

Lawyers for the condemned men scrambled to get in touch with London, and the judges there took a dim view of the matter, granting a stay of execution. It wasn't that they were trying to prevent the hangings altogether (since, after all, they were ruling on Trinidadian law, not British law), but more that the sentence was to be applied so suddenly, with so little warning - a contravention of the mens' constitutional rights.

The word came down from London only 95 minutes before the executions were to take place. If it weren't for the fact that London was four hours ahead of Trinidad, giving the British judges a chance to wake up and convene meetings even as the executioners were preparing for hangings at dawn, the two men would probably have been dead before anyone in London even knew about it.

This strange state of affairs persists to this very day, and it's not just Trinidad and Tobago that are affected - most of the former Caribbean possessions of Britain also have to defer to British judges. London has been called on to make rulings many times since, and - despite the British aversion to capital punishment, demonstrated in the UK Parliament earlier in 1994 - have even allowed executions to go ahead in some cases.

Guerra and Wallen survived their brush with death, and their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment in 1995. Wallen has since died in prison, while Guerra has sued the authorities for beatings inflicted while in jail. The Privy Council holds that while the death penalty may be legal in Trinidad & Tobago, keeping people on death row for more than five years constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, so most death sentences end up not being carried out. Nevertheless, capital punishment is still very popular as a policy with the public, so there's little chance that it'll be abolished any time soon.