Prisoners serving life should be eligible for parole, court rules in landmark judgment

Prisoners serving life have a ‘right to hope’ and should be allowed the possibility to apply for parole after 25 years of jail, the constitutional court has said • Case was filed by man found guilty of murdering elderly couple

The constitutional court has delivered a landmark ruling on parole for life prisoners
The constitutional court has delivered a landmark ruling on parole for life prisoners

A man sentenced to life in jail over the murder of an elderly couple has won the right to apply for parole in a landmark ruling by the constitutional court.

In a judgment handed down on Thursday afternoon by Judge Joseph R. Micallef, the constitutional court ruled that even persons found guilty of the most horrific crimes should not be stripped of their dignity and the “right to hope” of one day being released from custody.

The court said prisoners on a life sentence should be able to apply for parole after serving a minimum of 25 years. As things stood, all inmates bar those serving a life sentence qualified for parole.

The case was filed by Brian Vella, who was found guilty in a 2007 jury of murdering his elderly neighbours. Vella was condemned to life imprisonment, a punishment confirmed on appeal in 2011.

Vella had gagged and bound 79-year-old Gerald Grima and his 63-year-old wife Josephine in their apartment on 10 February, 2000. The elderly couple died of asphyxiation.

Contrary to the common misconception, in Malta, life imprisonment means the person convicted will never leave prison and is ineligible for parole or early release.

As Vella’s lawyers David Camilleri and Joseph Gatt told MaltaToday: “You die there.”

But this could change as a result of today’s judgment.

“This deprivation of hope amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment,” Vella’s lawyers argued.

The Attorney General had contested the case, insisting that Vella had been granted prison leave on five occasions, which showed that ordinary remedies available to him had worked.

Judge Micallef noted that a breach of Article 3 rights that prohibit inhuman and degrading treatment, had to be considered in light of all the circumstances of the case, together with the physical and moral effects the length of a sentence left on the person.

The court said it recognised the punishment handed down to the accused was for a terrible crime, which robbed two elderly persons of their life during a break-in at their home.

Person guilty of the worst crimes must not lose his dignity and must retain his right to hope Constitutional court

It also noted that the harshest punishment was given - despite a lack of juror unanimity – and society’s expectation for the harshest justice to be delivered.

“However, the court also recognised that in this regard, the person who is found guilty of the worst crimes must not lose his dignity and must retain his right to hope that, after having paid for his actions, be considered as having learnt from the shortcoming and change the path he had taken,” the judge said.

He observed that a judge at the European Court of Human Rights, in the case Vinter et vs UK had ruled there was a “right to hope” by those who commit the most abhorrent of acts.

“These people retain their fundamental humanity and carry within themselves the capacity to change. Long and deserved though their prison sentences may be, they retain the right to hope that someday they may have atoned for the wrongs which they have committed. They ought not to be deprived entirely of such hope,” the ECHR judge had said.

The court said society has a right to be protected from dangerous persons who do not want to change their path and this bound the State to restrain and subdue these persons despite the passage of time from the crime.

However, Micallef said it has been accepted that in order for a life sentence not to breach the European Convention on Human Rights, there must be a mechanism for its revision.

The balance between the justification for detention is not necessarily static and may shift in the course of the sentence and it is only by reviewing the justification for the continued detention at points during the sentence that these factors or shifts can be properly evaluated, the court said.

The ECHR had established that a whole life prisoner is entitled to know what he is to do to be considered for release and under what conditions.

The possibility of the President of the Republic exercising his or her prerogative of mercy did not satisfy this requirement, stated the judge, as it did not depend on fixed criteria or an established procedure.

Neither was prison leave sufficient to satisfy the requirement, as it often depended on circumstances beyond the prisoner’s control.

The court upheld the applicant’s submissions, saying that while it hoped the legislator would provide the necessary changes to the law without delay, it would be ordering that after Vella had served 25 years of his sentence, he would be eligible to appear before a parole board that would then decide whether or not he is a suitable candidate for “one of the remedies given by the same... in the same manner that every other person who is serving a sentence, but not for life, may benefit from.”

Although Vella is to remain in custody till 2036, his lawyers said it was a landmark victory for their client. “It’s about hope,” Gatt said.