Three days ago Japhet Bennett was serving a life sentence in Belize, today he walks free after the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) overturned his murder conviction on appeal. Japhet was just 17 years old when he was arrested on suspicion of murder almost a decade ago and he has been incarcerated ever since. The evidence against him at trial was so weak that the CCJ ruled that it was too unsafe to have allowed the jury to deliver a verdict.
At his trial in 2013, the only evidence against Japhet, who had no previous convictions, was a statement of an alleged eyewitness to the police identifying him as the shooter of the deceased. The eyewitness later retracted this account during his testimony at trial and said that he had only heard the gunshots, but had not seen who fired them.
In a majority judgment, the CCJ found that the witness’s police statement was admissible but that the jury should not have been allowed to find Japhet guilty without any other evidence to confirm whether the statement was reliable. The judgment is significant because for the first time it sets out the test judges should apply in Belize to determine whether a case risks injustice if it is left to the jury to decide.
The Court found that in this instance no other evidence had been introduced by the close of the prosecution’s case to enable the jury to assess the reliability of the police statement. Consequently, the Court concluded that the judge should have stopped the trial. Japhet’s conviction was accordingly quashed by the CCJ and he was released from Belize Central Prison within a few hours of the judgment.
Amanda Clift-Matthews, Legal Director of The Death Penalty Project says:
We are of course delighted with this result and to hear that Japhet has now been reunited with his family. The CCJ has once again distinguished itself as a conscientious court of appeal and provided further valuable guidance on what it means to have a fair trial.
Watch : Japhet Bennett is released from Belize Central Prison (via Channel 5 Belize)
Notes to Editors
The Death Penalty Project provided legal assistance to Japhet Bennett’s attorneys Audrey Matura and Anthony Sylvestre in proceedings before the Court of Appeal and the Caribbean Court of Justice. Peter Knox QC (3 Hare Court) and Amanda Clift-Matthews (In-House Counsel) were instructed pro bono.