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Pitman jailed for 40 years
Death row inmate Lester Pitman, who triggered a maelstrom of criticism against Chief Justice Ivor Archie and other members of the judiciary over delays in the delivery of judgments, was yesterday ordered to serve a minimum of 40 years behind bars for the brutal killings of three people more than a decade ago. Ironically, Pitman, 34, who has been behind bars since 2001 for the Cascade triple murders, was late to the Court of Appeal at the Hall of Justice, Port-of-Spain, yesterday, leading to a 22-minute delay.
Sensitive to the recent issues raised, Archie was quick to alert the courtroom: “The prisoners have not yet arrived, the delay is not our making.” Wearing a sky-blue shirt and grey pleated trousers, and chewing gum incessantly, Pitman eventually sauntered into the courtroom, the tail of his shirt outside his pants, taking a seat in the prisoner’s dock. Apart from the ten burly prisons officers seated to his right, there were four uniformed Court and Process Branch officers standing guard.
Archie, who presided over the appeal with Justices of Appeal Paula Mae Weekes and Alice Yorke-Soo Hon, announced that the panel had dismissed Pitman’s appeal against his conviction on three counts of murder.
Having regard to the fact that Pitman, who was convicted in 2004, had been in custody more than five years after his conviction and taking into account the guidelines of the Privy Council in the landmark case of Pratt and Morgan, which prohibits the State from carrying out an execution after five years, except in exceptional circumstances, Archie “commuted” Pitman’s death sentence to one of life imprisonment and ordered that the prisoner not be released before he serves a minimum of 40 years behind bars.
The circumstances of the case, according to Archie, involved a home invasion where the victims were hog-tied and killed and he observed that Pitman had shown no remorse for his acts. Legal observers said yesterday, however, that the Chief Justice had no power to commute Pitman’s sentence, since such power only resides in the hands of the President. Rather, they said the CJ could have substituted his sentence of death to one of life imprisonment.
Archie spent a considerable time after giving the court’s decision defending the judiciary against criticism in the media about the delay in delivering judgments, saying that this case was the exception rather than the rule in most matters. He repeated statistics published in a full-page advertisement last Sunday and noted that it was the intention of judges to give written decisions within six months of hearing a case. In Pitman’s case, the Appeal Court, had reserved its decision in March 2010.
In October, Senior Counsel Dana Seetahal, who represented the State, had written to the Chief Justice, seeking answers on when the judgment in Pitman’s matter, and two other murder appeals, would be delivered. In her letter, Seetahal referred to the scathing remarks made by the Privy Council in July, about the four-year delay by a Family Court judge in handing down a ruling, which was described as “an affront to family justice.”
Archie, in response to Seethal’s letter, promised to deliver the ruling before the end of December. On November 25, Pitman, through his civil lawyers, took the unprecedented move of filing a pre-action protocol letter against the Chief Justice, claiming that his constitutional rights were being infringed by the delay in the delivery of his judgment. A second letter followed, which threatened to remove the Chief Justice from office on the basis of judicial misconduct.
Chief State Solicitor Christophe Grant, in response to the November 25 letter, stated on December 6 that three attorneys had been appointed to treat with the concerns raised in Pitman’s letter. The criticism, which threatened to erode the public’s confidence in the judiciary, prompted Archie to summon the 40 Supreme Court judges and three masters of the High Court to a meeting on December 9 at the Hall of Justice.
At that meeting, Archie spoke of a conspiracy to get him out of office and noted that he was aware that people “were caucusing on the weekends,” without naming his conspirators. Judiciary sources noted that Archie was likely referring to fellow judges who have been critical of him and other judges for failing to deliver judgments in a timely manner.
A statement issued by the judiciary, four days after the meeting, set out laudable benchmarks for the delivery of judgments in the new year—those more than a year old to be delivered by March 31 and July 30, while those outstanding for more than six months will be delivered.
Pitman’s case history
Lester Pitman was charged in 2001 and convicted in 2004 of the Cascade triple murders. John Cropper, 59; his mother-in-law Maggie Lee 68; and sister-in-law Lynette Lithgow-Pearson, 57, were found dead by police on December 13, 2001, and the Appeal Court reserved its decision in March 2010.
At Pitman’s first appeal, some 14 grounds of complaints were argued and the Appeal Court delivered judgment within nine months, in 2005. He took his case to the Privy Council, which granted him a stay of execution against the sentence of death, and three years later, in 2008, the London court gave its decision in his substantive appeal and remitted the matter to the Court of Appeal for determination.
The Court of Appeal was to rule on the complaint that the prisoner had a low IQ and further psychiatric examinations were needed. Progress of the matter was spread over two years because the schedules of several experts, including two foreign doctors, had to be taken into account. Hearing was concluded in March 2010.
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