There is a worrying trend in our High Court over the past few years. A number of persons charged with murder have been pleading guilty to the lesser count of manslaughter, thereby avoiding a more severe penalty on sentencing.
Last week, a suspect charged with the murder of a Mahaicony businesswoman pleaded guilty to the lesser count of manslaughter. On the same day, two men originally charged with the murders of two elderly women, pleaded guilty to the less counts of manslaughter. Another man charged with the murder of his mother- in- law and step daughter pleaded guilty to manslaughter instead.
During the June assizes, a man who was charged with the murder of his wife, pleaded guilty to the lesser count of manslaughter. And in the same assizes, youths charged with the murder of a university professor did the same thing.
A person charged with an offence of murder cannot plead guilty to the lesser count of manslaughter without the consent of the state prosecutors. Therefore, in all the aforesaid cases and in other cases, the prosecutors would have had to consent to the guilty plea of the lesser count.
There is nothing improper about this practice. It is acceptable in common law for someone to plead not guilty to the offence in their indictment but guilty to a lesser charge not in their indictment. But while this practice is legal, it is not always in the interest of justice.
What about the relatives of the victims? Do they have a say? Do they feel that justice has been served by the State accepting a lesser count of manslaughter? Is justice served when someone is able to escape a more severe penalty through pleading to a lesser charge?
I know how I would feel if someone murdered one of my relatives and when the matter went to court, a lesser plea was accepted. I would not be pleased. I do not know about you or about how the relatives of victims would feel in such instance.
The prosecutors should consult with the families of victims or should discuss with basis for accepting a lesser plea. They should consider whether their acceptance of the lesser plea would be acceptable to the victims’ relatives. It is for the prosecutors to explain to the families the circumstances justifying accepting a lesser count.
There may be good cause for accepting a plea for a reduce count. In some cases, the evidence for murder may be weak. Because of the length of time it takes to bring suspects to trial, witnesses may have died or no longer be in the jurisdiction. The prosecutors may feel that is risky going to trial in such circumstances.
Dana Seetahal, who was a legal lecturer and attorney in Trinidad and Tobago before her murder five years ago, always taught her students that if the prosecution refuses to accept a plea for manslaughter and the trial goes ahead and the jury finds the person not guilty, the jury would not be asked to pronounce on the lesser count. This is a risk which some prosecutors are not willing to take in some cases. They would, in those cases, opt for the lesser count. This is also a consideration
Guyana’s courts have a backlog of cases. Accepting lesser guilty pleas may help to avoid lengthy trials and ensure that more suspects have their day in court during each assizes. But this should never be a factor influencing the acceptance of a lesser plea. It is not acceptable to trade justice for expediency. Avoiding a long trial should never be a basis for accepting a lesser charge of manslaughter for persons charged with murder. The key factor has to be the interests of justice.
I can only speak for myself. I would rather someone charged for murder be freed of the charge rather than accepting a lesser count. I am not in favor of accepting the lesser count of manslaughter in murder cases. But that is my opinion.
This practice of persons pleading guilty to lesser counts is not a new development but it is taking place with great regularity in our courts in recent times. The Director of Public Prosecutions need to issue some statement explaining the frequency with which persons charged with murder are now pleading guilty to manslaughter.
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