In 2010, the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) replaced the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as the final Court of Appeal in all civil and criminal matters for Belize. Belize retains the death penalty for murder and military offences.

Although Belize has been a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) since 1996, it has neither signed nor ratified the First Optional Protocol allowing for the right of individual petition nor the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR aiming at the abolition of the death penalty. Whilst a party to the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, it has not signed nor ratified the American Convention on Human Rights nor has it accepted the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Belize has not signed the Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Glenford Baptist, the last prisoner on death row in Belize was reprieved in July 2015. For the first time in decades, there are no longer any condemned prisoners in Belize.

 Proposed Constitutional Amendments

In May 2011, the Government of Belize presented a Bill to Parliament containing a raft of constitutional amendments designed in part, to eliminate future legal challenges to the implementation of the death penalty. In short, the amendments sought to immunise the imposition and carrying out of a death sentence from ever being found to be unconstitutional by the courts, regardless of extensive delay on death row, inadequate prison conditions, or the proposed method of execution.

On 21st July 2011, together with the Human Rights Commission of Belize, we submitted (as interested parties) a written application to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights seeking their intervention/action with regard to the proposed constitutional amendments in Belize. Subsequently on 28 July 2011, the Government of Belize withdrew the Bill. For more information, please see our press releases from 21 July 2011 and 28 July 2011.

Notable cases that we have worked on include:

  • Reyes -v- The Queen (Belize) [2002] 2 AC 235

In this seminal judgment, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council acknowledged the inhumanity of the mandatory death penalty in Belize. The Court held that the mandatory imposition of the death penalty constitutes inhumane or degrading punishment, contrary to the Constitution of Belize. This case was remitted for sentencing to the Supreme Court of Belize.

In The Queen v Reyes, Chief Justice Conteh reaffirmed that the mandatory death penalty is unconstitutional in Belize and held that the imposition of the death penalty requires “special justification”.  The decision established strict sentencing criteria in capital cases to the extent that:-

(a) the presumption is life and not death and the Prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the death sentence should be imposed;

(b) it should be reserved for the worst of the worst cases; and

(c) can only be imposed where there is no possibility of reform and social reintegration of the offender.

In addition, Chief Justice Conteh set out guidelines to be followed in the prosecution, trial and sentencing in capital cases:

(a)   The prosecution should give notice as to whether they propose to submit that the death penalty is appropriate, and to include grounds if the death penalty is sought;

(b)  The trial judge, if considers that the death penalty is appropriate, should specify the date of sentence hearing which provides reasonable time for the defence to prepare;

(c)   The trial judge needs to give directions in relation to the conduct of the sentencing hearing and indicate the materials that should be made available, so the defence may have reasonable material for the preparation of the case;

(d)  The judge should specify a time for the defence to provide notice of any points or evidence it proposes to rely on in relation to sentence; and

(e)   If the judge considers that the death sentence should be imposed, he should give reasons including specific reasons for rejecting any mitigating circumstances.

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council declared their convictions unsafe as the trial judge had failed to direct the jury to take care with the dock identification evidence. Furthermore, in relation to the death penalty, the JCPC emphasised the need to consider the personal and individual circumstances of the accused, and the need to obtain social enquiry and psychiatric reports for every prisoner being considered for a death sentence. The Board noted that the trial judge in this case had failed to adhere to the guidelines set out by CJ Conteh in Reyes (see above) which should be regarded as established principles of law.

On 4th November 2009, five years after being convicted for murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, the Privy Council quashed the sentences of Francis Eiley, Ernest Savery, and Lenton Polonio.  They had been convicted solely on the uncorroborated evidence of one man (Vasquez) who had been apprehended at the scene of the murder, bloodstained, and who was initially charged with the murder. In return for giving evidence for the Prosecution at the trial, Vasquez was promised immunity from prosecution by the Director of Public Prosecutions.  The Privy Council considered the convictions of the three appellants to be unsafe having regard to the nature of the evidence and the fact that Vasquez had been caught “literally red-handed at the scene” and was therefore “a prime suspect”.  In their judgment, the Board held that the decision by the prosecution to offer Vasquez immunity was “surprising” and “his evidence had features that were unsatisfactory and suggested that his primary concern was to distance himself from involvement in the murder.” The Court was of the opinion that it was not able to dismiss the possibility that on the morning after the murder, Mr. Vasquez simply pointed to the first group of men that he saw after indicating to the police that he would take them to those who were involved in the crime. The Privy Council therefore found the convictions to be unsafe and quashed the sentences of life imprisonment.

To see our press release, click here.

In 2003, Earlin White was convicted for murder and sentenced to death by hanging by the Supreme Court of Belize. On 29th July 2010, the Privy Council set aside the death sentence and substituted it with a sentence of life imprisonment. The Board held that the trial judge had erred in requiring the appellant to “persuade” the court that a death sentence should not be imposed. The starting point should be life imprisonment, not the death penalty. The Board also considered that though “a bad case…, the case fell short of being “the worst of the worst” to call for the ultimate penalty of capital punishment”. The Privy Council emphasised the importance of applying the principles set out in Trimmingham v. The Queen [2009], namely:

(1) that the death sentence should only be imposed in the most extreme and exceptional cases; and

(2) only where there is no reasonable prospect of reform and the object of punishment can only be achieved by the death penalty.

The decision also emphasised the importance of strictly applying the sentencing guidelines of Chief Justice Conteh in Reyes v The Queen (see above). Relevant reports (including but not limited to, social welfare, psychiatric, psychological reports) must be obtained in order to reach this conclusion.