Definition of life sentence can vary
When a judge sentenced convicted murderer Angelo Poitier to life imprisonment for the murder of Shenise Adderley, her family interpreted the sentence to mean he would die in prison.
Adderley’s mom, Carol Fisher-Kemp told the press after the sentencing hearing, “Thank God it’s over and he won’t have an opportunity to do it to another person.”
However, Fisher-Kemp was misled by the misnomer as a life sentence does not necessary mean the end of one’s existence. Lifers have served anywhere from 10 years to their entire lives in prison, depending on the decision of the Committee for the Prerogative of Mercy.
Convictions for murder, manslaughter, armed robbery and rape can attract life sentences.
A judge tried to define what she meant by a life sentence when she added the words “and by that I mean the rest of your natural life” as she resentenced murder convicts Forrester Bowe Jr. and Trono Davis.
Bowe and Davis, and numerous other murder convicts, had to be re-sentenced after a 2006 Privy Council decision nullified their initial death sentence by finding that the sentence was discretionary and not mandatory.
However, the Court of Appeal determined that the sentence did not exist in Bahamian law before they changed the penalty to life.
Except for those deemed criminally insane, a life sentence rarely means what it says, according to defense lawyer Michael Hanna.
Lawyers have asked the court to define what a life sentence means. In a 2010 ruling, then Court of Appeal president Dame Joan Sawyer said, “This court has no power under the Constitution or any statute to specify a particular period of a life sentence which a prisoner must serve before becoming eligible for release on license. The prison service in England, as in The Bahamas, is run by the executive branch of the government. If it were otherwise, it would appear to be at least a conflict of interest or appear to involve bias if a judge was to be personally concerned with whether (a) person he has sentenced to prison is or is not released long before the period for which he was sentenced expired.”
Hanna said “good law must be certain” adding that at present neither the convict nor his victim’s family has a way of determining what life means. He added, “A life sentence needs to be clarified, too much uncertainty will bring about injustice in the system.”
He pointed out that the Privy Council’s recent decision in the Maxo Tido case makes it almost impossible for a murder convict to receive the death penalty. Hanna noted that countries in the European Union have abolished executions for murder. While life is the mandatory sentence for murder in the U.K., it is up to judges to set what is called the minimum term the offender should spend in prison.
In 2008, a man who had been paroled for a life sentence for manslaughter received a second life sentence for a murder conviction. A man sentenced to life for armed robbery and kidnapping in the 1990s was released from prison last year.