Ms. Ramjattan Beats the Gallows in TrinidadDecember 8, 2023
Amnesty International and other human rights groups report that over half the countries in the world have now abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Specifically, Amnesty International reports that 63 countries and territories have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, while 91 other countries, a number of which are in the English Speaking Caribbean (ESC), retain and use the death penalty. The countries that comprise the ESC are: Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados, Dominica, Bahamas and Suriname.
In the late 1990’s Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations viewed with alarm what they believe is a trend toward the increasing popularity of hangings in the Caribbean, a vestige of British colonial rule. England had only one form of execution for murder – that was hanging by the neck until dead. Although England ended the death penalty in 1991, the ESC maintains the tradition of hanging murders. Human rights groups decried the fact that a number of governments in the ESC had undertaken controversial steps to change their justice systems and constitutions and sever ties with international appeals bodies to make it easier to carry out such executions.
Of course, many in the United States are not aware of the death penalty debate that raged between human rights groups and the governments of many of the ESC nations of the Caribbean; nor are they aware that executions in the ESC are still carried out by hanging. This article is mainly about one ESC woman on death row who beat the gallows. It is my belief that gender-bias helped save her from hanging. However, first we must take a few moments to examine the roots of the discussion. To do so we must look at what has become known to both the proponents of the death penalty and those in favor of it abolition, as Pratt and Morgan.
PRATT AND MORGAN
Pratt and Morgan, two consolidated cases from Jamaica, ( Pratt v. Attorney General for Jamaica, 2 App. Cas. 1), resulted in a 1993 landmark judgment of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the British court of last resort for many Caribbean nations. In essence, that judgment established the principle that both Pratt and Morgan, who had been prisoners on Jamaica’s death row for a period exceeding five years, could be seen as victims of cruel and inhumane punishment if they were sent to the gallows, and should therefore, have their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. The Privy Council also recommended that other prisoners on death row in the region for five years or more should also have their sentences commuted.
The Privy Council then reviewed the tortured chronology of the appellants’ appeal process which included lost applications for appeals, rulings denying their appeal with no written explanation, and failure of Jamaica to recognize the recommendations of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights after their review of the case. It was the ruling of the Privy Council that in any case in which execution is to take place more than five years after sentence there would be strong grounds for believing that the delay is such as to constitute inhumane treatment or punishment as proscribed by the Constitution.
As a result of Pratt and Morgan all prisoners in the Caribbean who had been on death row for longer than five years had their sentences commuted to life in prison. Scores of prisoners continue to be removed from death row as a result. It is reported that for those remaining the Pratt and Morgan decision has set off a scramble to extend their appeals process beyond the five year limit. Before Pratt and Morgan, there were 450 prisoners on death row throughout the ESC. While only a handful of hangings have occurred in the region since Pratt and Morgan, the death row population is now much less than half of what it was in 1993 – a direct consequence of the commutation of sentences.
In the late 1990’s Trinidad and Tobago was the only ESC nation with women on death row. Amnesty International reported, as of April 1999, there were seventy six men and five women on death row in Trinidad.
I traveled to Trinidad in June 1999 to learn more about the country and about the women on death row. The ESC islands of Trinidad and Tobago form a unitary state, with a parliamentary democracy modeled after the United Kingdom. The country is headed by a president who is elected by the parliament. There is an independent judiciary but constitutional cases may be appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The two islands host a population of 1.3 million people and comprise a land mass about 1.5 times the size of the state of Rhode Island. The southernmost tip of Trinidad is only three miles from the Coast of Venezuela. The major ethnic group is of East Indian descent (40.3%), followed closely by those of African descent (39.5%), 18% of the people are of mixed nationality, while those of European descent comprise 0.6% of the population. The country is endowed with rich deposits of oil and natural gas and boasted a GDP of $5.4 billion for the year 1996.
Women on Death Row
While in Trinidad I was able to learn about three of the five women on death row. There is Giselle Stafford. She was sentenced to death in 1996 for the murder of a man. Angela Ramdeen was sentenced in 1997 to be hanged. Ms. Ramdeen was convicted for the murder of her two step children. And, then there is Indravani Pamela Ramjattan who went to death row for the 1995 slaying of her common law husband, Alexander Jordan.
No women have been executed in Trinidad since its independence from Great Britain in 1962. Most of the women on death row are there as a result of some form of domestic violence. A number of women’s groups, as well as Amnesty International, believe that domestic violence against women is a way of life in Trinidad. It is reported that 27 women were murdered in domestic violence encounters in 1998. In total there were a reported 2,282 cases of domestic violence in the same year. Unfortunately, there were only six women’s shelters in the entire nation in the late 1990’s and no legal aid exists for battered women. What we know as the battered wife syndrome in United States Courts as a defense to assault or homicide of a spouse is unknown in Trinidad. Such evidence if presented in Trinidadian court could only be used to show “diminished responsibility.”
The Ramjattan Case
Among the women on death row in Trinidad Ms. Ramjattan’ s case was the most chronicled because of interest by women’s groups and human rights activists. Despite Trinidad’s Attorney General’s zeal to carry out the death penalty for all those on death row within the Pratt and Morgan five year limitation there was much local speculation that the government of then, Prime Minister, Basdeo Panday, would not execute women.
Indravani Pamela Ramjattan, Haniff Hillaire, and Denny Baptiste were all convicted in 1995, in a joint trial for the murder of Ramjattan’ s common law husband Alexander Jordan at Cumuto, Trinidad. The facts of the case show that Ms. Ramjattan completed the equivalent of an eighth grade education. At the age of 16 her parents accepted money from Alexander Jordan, a man in his thirties, who took Ms. Ramjattan as his common law wife. They had six children together in a ten year period. During this same period Ms. Ramjattan suffered abuse at the hands of Jordan and in 1991 she left him. She took two of her children and went to the town of Sangre Grande and began living with childhood sweetheart, Denny Baptiste. Shortly thereafter, Jordan tracked her down and forcibly broke down Baptiste’s door and took Ms. Ramjattan back to Cumuto. Upon arrival in Cumuto he beat her unconscious.
Shortly thereafter, Ms. Ramjattan wrote a letter to Baptiste and Hillaire, his friend who lived in the same housing complex, to come to Cumuto to rescue her. Ms. Ramjattan swore in a court affidavit that she did summon Baptiste and Hillaire but never asked them to kill her husband. Nevertheless, the evidence further showed that late on the night of February12, 1991, Ms. Ramjattan met Baptiste and Hillaire behind her house. She gave them a piece of wood and directed the two men to the area in the house where Alexander was sleeping. Baptiste and Hillaire entered the home and struck Jordan in the head several times with the piece of wood while he lay sleeping. They then rolled his body in a bed sheet, transported him to Jordan’s van, and placed him inside. According to testimony, Ms. Ramjattan brought kerosene to the two men who then sprinkled it on Jordan’s body and set him and the van afire. An autopsy showed that Jordan had died from three blows to his head which fractured his skull. His body was also covered with first degree burns.
Ms. Ramjattan was pregnant by Baptiste when she was taken into custody, after the murder of Jordan. She did not speak to a lawyer until a year into her detention because she had no money to hire a lawyer. The baby later died when prison officials refused to take her to the hospital when she went into labor.
Following Ms. Ramjattan’s conviction her appeals were heard by the local courts and by the Privy Council which found that her case did not fit the statutory definition of provocation or unlawful force. One of the Privy Council Judges, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, however, had described the case as “tragic” as it was clear that Jordan had “beaten her mercilessly.” Ms. Ramjattan’ s plight gained the attention of the Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Trinidad and other women’s groups in Kenya, and throughout the world who contend that to hang Ms. Ramjattan would be an injustice, given what they believe to be her unstable mental state at the time of Jordan’s death. A new team of lawyers was assembled which obtained expert evidence on her behalf to take to the Privy Council which alleged that at the time of the murder Ms. Ramjattan suffered emotional and cognitive distortions that would have rendered her psychologically incapable of understanding the consequences of her plan to have Jordan murdered.
It is interesting to note that at the trial level Ms. Ramjattan’ s lawyer chose not to present evidence of her years of abuse. Rather, it was the prosecution that used the abuse evidence to reinforce the argument that Ramjattan had a strong motive to murder her husband. Similarly her lawyers chose not to focus on the abuse in her first appeal to the Privy Council.
The Privy Council Ruling
In late 1998 local attorneys and supporters of Ms. Ramjattan learned through interviews with her on death row the extent of Jordan’s brutality over the years. They hired Joanne Cross a lawyer at the British law form of Slaughter and May to file a new appeal before the Privy Council. The new appeal asked the Privy Council to reconsider the case based on new evidence. Said evidence consisted of a 17 page psychiatric report on Ms. Ramjattan by a London based expert on domestic abuse. Forensic psychiatrist Nigel Eastman of London’s St. George’s Hospital Medical School concluded that Ms. Ramjattan was a classic victim of “battered woman syndrome.” The report also stated that Ms. Ramjattan suffered “repetitive physical violence, culminating in a most severe attack on the 4th of February, repeated rapes… enforced isolation… amounting ultimately to imprisonment as a hostage in the days leading up to the offense, threats to kill, attacks with weapons, threats with a shotgun, worsened violence if she protested, worsened violence when she escaped, humiliation and mental abuse starving and beating their children and refusing to allow them to go to school.”
Many hoped that the Privy Council would rule in Ms. Ramjattan’s favor and set a precedent for the ESC which would provide that domestic abuse could justify homicide in self-defense. On February 3, 1999, the Privy Council did rule in Ms. Ramjattan’ s favor. However, the ruling did not go as far as her supporters hoped in setting a clear precedent concerning whether abuse can justify homicide in self-defense. The ruling did, in fact, send the case back to the Trinidad Court of Appeal. And perhaps, more importantly, provided Ms. Ramjattan an avenue to escape the gallows.
The Privy Council accepted Ms. Ramjattan’ s new evidence as adequate grounds to support her allegation of diminished responsibility on the grounds that she had not previously had the financial resources to procure such evidence. The Privy Council, further held, in relevant part:
Their Lordships’ Board has jurisdiction to hear further petitions in respect of the same matter notwithstanding the dismissal of earlier petitions. The jurisdiction will however only be exercised in exceptional cases where new ground of appeal are raised of such a character and of sufficient merit to justify a second petition.
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The petitioner seeks leave to adduce new evidence, not previously relied upon, to support an allegation of diminished responsibility. If she can establish the facts required by s 4A of the Offences Against the Person Act 1925, she would have a defense to the charge of murder.
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On this petition, their Lordships confined their consideration to the question whether a sufficient case had been made out for remission to the Court of Appeal. Having decided to remit, they did not enter upon the question whether the Court of Appeal should accept the new evidence nor what weight the Court of Appeal should give it nor whether it indeed justifies the quashing of her conviction for murder and substituting a conviction for manslaughter or the ordering of a retrial. All of these are matters for the Court of Appeal to decide; they may choose to hear oral evidence; evidence in rebuttal of the new evidence may be adduced; what in the upshot the evidence proves and what its admissibility and relevance if called at the trial would have been will have to be assessed as will the petitioners explanation for not having adduced that evidence at trial.
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Their Lordships have after some hesitation decided that the evidence of Dr. Eastman does justify a remission to the Court of Appeal so that the Court of Appeal may reconsider the appeal of Indravani Ramjattan taking into account that evidence. They do not overlook that there are still obstacles to be overcome before she can successfully challenge the jury’s verdict.
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It should also be noted that their Lordships’ Board have dismissed the petitions of Denny Baptiste and Haniff Hillaire.
The Personal Interviews
The Privy Council has firmly put the ball back in the Court of the Trinidadian Court of Appeal. Arguments in the case had been set for July 8, 1999, but have been continued by the Court of Appeal to November of 1999. We do not know how long it might take the Court to rule after the arguments.
While in Trinidad I spoke with Anthony Carmona, Chief Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, who was writing the brief for the government in the Ramjattan case, and with Rangee Dolsingh, Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions who was to argue the case for the government in the Court of Appeal. After their review of the Privy Council ruling they opined that the Court of Appeal, after hearing arguments, could issue one of three rulings: 1) Find a miscarriage of Justice in the case and order a retrial, 2) Enter a substitution of verdict and reduce the conviction to manslaughter, or 3) Find the psychological evidence not credible, dismiss the appeal and reestablish the original death sentence.
Mr. Dolsingh indicated that he will argue forcefully that the death sentence should be upheld. He believed that Ms. Ramjattan is an intelligent woman who has exaggerated the amount of abuse that she suffered at the hands of her deceased husband. It was his personal belief that the imposition of the death penalty should be gender neutral and that the death penalty should be carried out in Ms. Ramjattan’ s case, given the brutality of the crime. Nevertheless, Mr. Dolsingh confided that he believes that public policy in Trinidad would not allow a woman to be hanged. This sentiment was echoed by Mr. Justice George A. Edoo, Ombudsman of Trinidad and Tobago, with whom I also met during my visit to the country. Mr. Justice Edoo, who during his career presided over numerous murder trials, stated simply that women should not be put to death. He maintains that it was his opinion, and he believes and the opinion of the majority of Trinidadians, that to put a woman to death, any woman, would be like putting your sister or your mother to death. It is too unseemly to contemplate. Perhaps, Justice Edoo has articulated the root of gender bias in death penalty cases. The unseemly notion of, perhaps, putting our sisters or mothers to death.
Many Trinidadians had been pleased to see that the government had sentenced Dole Chadee and eight members of his ruthless drug gang to death. All nine of them had been hanged a few months prior to my trip to Trinidad. Nevertheless, many on the street in Port of Spain expressed the opinion that it would prove unpopular with the electorate to put one woman to death. I also had the opportunity to speak to others about the issue. Douglas Mendes is one of the attorneys who had worked on the brief for Ms. Ramjattan’ s case, as well as briefs for a number of other death penalty cases. Attorney Mendes was resolute – he does not believe that there should be gender equality in the death penalty – because he believes there should be no death penalty anywhere in the world. Mr. Mendes refused to speculate as to what the Court of Appeal would do with respect to Ms. Ramjattan’ s case. I, later, had the opportunity to meet with Attorney Gaitry Pargass, local counsel for Ms. Ramjattan at the time of both her Privy Council appeals. Attorney Pargass believed the best ruling from the Court Appeal would be the order of a new trial, thereby allowing counsel to present the very compelling battered spouse syndrome evidence through expert testimony and eyewitness testimony. She believed such evidence would lead to an acquittal. However, Attorney Pargass confided that Ms. Ramjattan has told her that she did not have the psychological wherewithal to endure a second trial. Attorney Pargass believed that if the Court of Appeal substituted a manslaughter conviction for the capital murder conviction the trial team could then argue for her release on grounds that she had served adequate time for the crime.
My final interviews while in Trinidad was with Keith Renaud, the assistant Superintendent of Police. Superintendent Renaud believes that there should not be the amount of crime that his small nation is facing. He believes that the death penalty is needed in Trinidad to send a signal to criminals that the law will be upheld. However, it was his prediction, given the politics of the country, Ms. Ramjattan would not be hanged. The irony Renaud points out is that the Prime Minister and his Party represent the ethnic majority — those of East Indian descent (40.3% of the population). All nine of the men members of the Dole Chadee gang executed in June were of East Indian descent. This was seen by the public as a bold and popular move to eradicate crime. Yet, Ms. Ramjattan is also of East Indian descent. The majority of people in the country did not believe a woman should be put to death. Such an execution would have harmed the goodwill that the Panday government has built. There certainly appears to be gender-bias with respect to the death penalty in Trinidad. I think this is good. Perhaps, a first step to the abolition of the death penalty altogether.
Ms. Ramjattan did not deliver the death blows that killed her husband. These were meted out by two male friends to whom she had turned for help. Throughout the trial, she insisted that she called them merely to rescue her, not to kill her husband. The jury did not believe her. She was convicted as an aider and abettor – she was, therefore, as guilty as the principals who struck the death blows. Secondly, at trial Ms. Ramjattan did not once utter the words “battered spouse.” Her strategy was simply to say that she was not a party to the violence that killed her husband.
However, as I understand the defense at this point, Ms. Ramjattan’s attorney will use the evidence of her battered state to show that she had a mental state which would have “diminished responsibility” for the crime. That is, her actions as an aider and abettor were a product of the abuse she had suffered for so many years from her husband, and thereby had distorted her mind and mental processes.
The Reluctance To Put Women To Death
Mr. Justice Edoo believes that Ms. Ramjattan’ s life will be spared because to execute a woman would be like killing our sisters or our mothers. Another way of expressing this thought may be that society prefers to think of women as passive, not powerful or aggressive. To execute a woman is to acknowledge that women can be violent.
Leigh Beinen, a law professor who studies gender bias in capital cases, contends the reason so few women face execution has to do with the symbolism that is central to the death penalty. She states “Capital punishment is about portraying people as devils, but women are usually seen as less threatening.” Beinen believes that juries and judges tend to find more mitigating factors in capital cases involving women than in ones involving men. She further maintains that women who kill spouses are often seen as victims. Women are likely to kill someone they know without premeditation, which is considered less serious than killing a stranger.
Elizabeth Rapaport, a scholar who does not believe that there is inherent gender-bias with respect to the death penalty in the U.S., argues that most murders, whether committed by men or women, are not sufficiently aggravated to tempt prosecutors to pursue a death penalty. She also believes that an important reason why so few women are eligible for capital sentences is that women who kill are more likely than men to kill family and other intimates in anger than for a predatory purpose. Predatory murder is committed to gain some material or other advantage, in contrast with killing that appears to be stimulated by powerful emotion. Felony and other predatory murders are most often committed against strangers and least often committed against family and other intimates.
Ms. Ramjattan has no prior criminal record. Of course, what may be viewed as not predatory in the United States would not pass muster in Trinidad. The prosecutor will argue to the Court of Appeal that Ms. Ramjattan called the killers to her home, she provided them the murder weapon, and then gave them the kerosene with which to set her husband afire. Although seemingly cold-blooded, these do not appear to be predatory acts as defined by Rapaport. They were not performed for material gain. Instead, it appears that revenge was the motive. Yet, Mr. Dolsingh believed the acts of Ms. Ramjattan were as predatory and cunning as those of an animal.
Courts are usually conservative about forging new law and would rather await input from the legislature. If the Court of Appeal does not decide to overturn the death penalty for Ms. Ramjattan it could have been possible that the President or the Prime Minister could commute the death sentence to a life sentence. This is not without precedent and may make for a compromise middle ground for the country.
A few months after I returned to the U.S. from Trinidad the Court of Appeal in Trinidad stunned the ESC legal community by ruling in favor of Ramjattan, even before oral argument could be heard. Although oral arguments had been set for November 18, 1999, on October 8, 1999, the court of appeal voided Ramjattan’ s murder conviction and substituted one of manslaughter. Chief Justice Michael de la Bastide, in an oral opinion, overturned Ramjattan’ s death sentence, stated that she had suffered from battered wife syndrome, and as a result suffered “diminished responsibility” for the killing of her husband Alexander Jordan.
In reducing the charges against her, the judge then sentenced Ramjattan to five years in prison, in addition to the eight years she had already endured since first being arrested for the crime. In essence, a precedent was set: for the first time in the ESC, battered wife syndrome was ruled a legitimate defense to a capital murder charge. However, to some the victory is a hollow one because of the five additional years Ramjattan had to spend in prison. A Trinidadian newspaper aired the sentiment of many who have followed the case when it opined:
The removal of Indravani Pamela Ramjattan, 36, from death row was inadequate. She could have been set free given the brutality she endured which led to her crime… While it is understandable that the courts would not want to send a signal to abused wives that conspiring to kill their husbands is a way out, the years Ramjattan has already spent on Death Row should have been taken into consideration in passing sentence.
Again, I sought the insight of Rangee Dolsingh as to the turn of events with respect to the actions of the court of appeal. Mr. Dolsingh, who was to argue the case on behalf of the government on November 18, 1999, was also bewildered by the turn of events. He indicated to me in a telephone conference that he still had not learned why the court of appeal made the decision to overturn the murder conviction without further argument. Further, Mr. Dolsingh indicated that he believed it was the psychiatric report of Dr. Nigel Eastman that convinced the court of appeal that there was ample evidence in the record of diminished responsibility because of the amount of abuse and battering suffered by Ramjattan. Mr. Dolsingh believes that the case is not yet over. He maintained that Ramjattan had every right to, once again, go to the Privy Council in an effort to have her sentence reduced to time served.
What we can say with some degree of certainty is that my prediction rang true. The inherent gender-bias with respect to putting women to death saved Ramjattan from the gallows in the English-speaking Caribbean. It is my understanding that Ms. Ramjattan was quietly released from prison in 2003, and is living in Trinidad with her children.