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Apr 11, 2018

Last Chance for Japheth Bennett, Convicted of Ellis Meighan’s Murder

Japheth Bennett

Twenty-four year old Japheth Bennett has been behind bars since 2009. In 2013, as a minor, he was convicted of the murder of Ellis “Pepper Gacho” Meighan, who was ambushed on Banak Street and Central American Boulevard while riding on a bicycle. The thirty-seven year old was shot once to the back of the head, causing instantaneous death. After a jury sitting before Justice Adolph Lucas found him guilty, he was handed a sentence of life imprisonment. The conviction was upheld years later at the Court of Appeal, but due to new laws in effect, he had an opportunity to be re-sentenced. But his case was heard today before the Caribbean Court of Justice, where he sought a second lease on life. News Five’s Aaron Humes recaps the arguments.

 

Aaron Humes, Reporting

As Judge Jacob Wit summarized it, the primary focus of the case against Japheth Bennett is whether he did indeed kill Ellis “Pepper Gacho” Meighan in September of 2009, and if he did, should he spend the rest of his natural life behind bars for it? In the original trial, a key witness repudiated his original statement to police on the witness stand, saying that he did not in fact see Bennett at the scene that night. But the jury disregarded the courtroom testimony, and according to Anthony Sylvestre, convicted based on evidence that should not have been admitted.

 

Anthony Sylvestre, Attorney for Japheth Bennett

“Now, as it relates to the admission of that witness statement, pursuant to section seventy-three (a), of the Evidence Act, our submission is that – and this is where both grounds one and two relate – our respectful submission is that statement ought to have been excluded. And allied to that submission is that if that statement were properly excluded, what would have obtained is that there would not have been any evidence to ground the conviction, and so that in the circumstances, a submission of no case to answer would or ought to have been upheld.”

 

As for sentencing, Sylvestre argued that Belize had little provision for sentencing juveniles involved in murder. In the absence of the death penalty, the sentence is customarily life imprisonment. But a sentence of detention “at the court’s pleasure” still does significant harm to plans for rehabilitation.

 

Anthony Sylvestre

“Recently in the [Gregory] August case, August would have been an adult at the time of the commission of the offence – it is agreed just a year over the age, but he would have been nineteen – and the term of sentence imposed was thirty years; it was a fixed term. Consequent to the enactment of the Parole Act, the determinate sentence is a very important aspect of a convict’s sentence, because as Your Honors are aware, it is only when there is a determinate or fixed sentence that a convict would be able to have certainty as to when he would be parollable. So that for instance in August’s case, he would know for certain when he would be eligible for parole. This applicant will not be in such a situation: he would face the position where he would be sentenced to a fixed term, and thereafter that sentence would be subject to review.”

 

Director of Public Prosecutions Cheryl-Lynn Vidal argued for the safety of Bennett’s conviction. As to sentencing, a new regime in law does allow juveniles to have second chances.

 

Cheryl-Lynn Vidal, Director of Public Prosecutions

“When a juvenile has been convicted and a judge is sitting to pass a sentence, the sentence may be very, very, different in nature at that time than if a judge were saying, “You’re going to be sentenced to detention at the court’s pleasure; you will come back here in two years and I will monitor your progress, another two years and I will monitor your progress – “ it may very well be that at the end of that four year period, because this juvenile has continued going to school, has not gotten into any trouble at all at the prison, is showing movement toward rehabilitation, that the court may be minded, in a very short period of time, to release that juvenile. As opposed to a judge who is sitting with the facts, of course he has the mitigating factors – the age, maybe a very good record on the part of the juvenile – but the fact of the commission of that offense, it is a very different situation. There is a periodic review to see how the character of the juvenile is developing and how his conduct is during that time. And this is the advantage and this was the purpose of this regime in relation to detention.”

 

Judge Jacob Wit, Caribbean Court of Justice

“Yes, I understand that. Of course, it’s a little late now; he’s almost nine years in prison.”

 

Whether he serves any more is for this Court to decide. Aaron Humes reporting for News Five.

 

The Court’s decision has been reserved for a date to be determined.

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