CCJ restores conviction and sentence but criticises procedural flaws in Belize case

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CCJ headquarters in Port of Spain

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad — The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) on Tuesday ordered that a conviction and sentence of five years for causing dangerous harm imposed on Gilbert Henry be restored but noted that, as Henry had already served his time, he would not be imprisoned or face any other sanction.

Henry’s previous conviction had been quashed by Belize’s Court of Appeal in a written judgment delivered on 16 June 2017, reversing an oral judgment it had given earlier in this case.

In 2008, Henry was charged with attempted murder after he was accused of stabbing Ellis Taibo. His trial began almost four years later. After the trial judge’s summation, the jury deliberated for 2 hours and 26 minutes before asking for further directions. The jury then retired again and deliberated for a further eight minutes before returning with a verdict of not guilty of attempted murder but guilty of causing dangerous harm.

Henry challenged his conviction and sentence before the Court of Appeal of Belize, arguing that substantial delays in the trial and appellate processes were in breach of his constitutional right to a fair trial within a reasonable time, among other issues. On 22 March 2017, the Court of Appeal delivered an oral judgment dismissing the appeal and affirming Henry’s conviction and sentence. The court later delivered a written judgment on 16 June 2017, which made no mention of the earlier oral judgment.

The CCJ considered the matter, and several related cases, before arriving at the following conclusions.

First, an oral decision or order made by a judge is normally binding from the moment it is delivered and parties are entitled to rely upon it.

Secondly, the court retains a right to vary its earlier decision until the order of the court is recorded or otherwise perfected. The CCJ cautioned that it should only be amended in exceptional circumstances, adding that the court should invite submissions from the affected parties and should refer to the earlier decision, and explain its reasons for varying or overturning it, in the subsequent decision.

Lastly, the court had no further authority once its order had been recorded.

The court did not accept the director of public prosecution’s (DPP) argument that the Court of Appeal could not reverse the judgment before an order is issued. However, in the present case, the CCJ found that the Court of Appeal had wrongly exercised this jurisdiction. The Court of Appeal should have explained the reason for its reversal of the written decision and there was also no indication that consideration was given to inviting submissions from the parties.

The CCJ felt that these amounted to significant procedural lapses by the court.

The CCJ said that where all the jurors agreed on the verdict there was no need for them to deliberate for two hours and reversed the Court of Appeal on this point. The appeal was allowed and the conviction and sentence of five years for the offence of causing dangerous harm was restored. There was no order as to costs.

The full judgment of the court, and a judgment summary, are available on the court’s website.

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