We all know the story. A family of four comes to Antigua for a short vacation in paradise. Upon their departure, security at the V.C. Bird International Airport discovers a box containing 20 rounds of 9mm ammunition in the mother’s suitcase and arrests her. Despite her simple explanation that she forgot to unpack the ammunition when she left her native gun-loving Texas, she was taken to court and found guilty. The judge sentenced her to one year in prison for the offence. She was released after one day and a legal brouhaha has erupted.
On the one hand, you have the Attorney General (AG), Steadroy “Cutie” Benjamin who stated that he has done nothing wrong in granting the remission recommended by the Superintendent of Prisons, Albert Wade, and on the other side, you have the Bar Association which has opined that the AG did not have the power to grant the remission. Naturally, the AG has stated that he does not agree with the Bar Association and in the meantime, Prime Minister Gaston Browne requests that the Governor General exercise his power and grant a pardon to Shannon Martinez, as a way of correcting any real or perceived wrongs in this messy matter. You with us so far?
There can be no doubt that the release of Shannon Martinez was in the best interest of everyone. Holding her in prison for the offence would not have benefited anyone, least of all Martinez, so we should not debate the intent. Where this thing has apparently gone wrong is in the legal procedures that should have been followed. According to the legal minds of the Bar Association, the only avenue available to the Government to secure Martinez’s release was the grant of a pardon by the Governor General. Considering that this has now been done, and was done in a speedy fashion, the public is left to wonder if the AG erred. This is an extremely important point in this debate because it is the crux of the matter.
The attorney general is the chief legal advisor to the Government, and as such, is expected to be fairly precise in the execution of his powers and his adherence to laws. Society cannot run effectively if the chief legal advisor is operating outside of the laws and the Government cleans up his unlawful acts ex post facto. That is why it is extremely important that the AG come to the people and explain himself. He must explain what section or sections of the law he deems applicable and in support of the actions that he took. He cannot just say that he disagrees with the Bar Association and that is the end of it because the Association says that he acted unlawfully.
Until the AG explains himself and submits to some type of public scrutiny, there will be a continued perception that he is a law unto himself and when he, or others, are caught being unlawful, the Government will find some way to ‘right the wrong’ after the fact. Except that that is not a concept that exists in law. The two actions are separate and distinct. The action of the Governor General to pardon. Martinez is separate and distinct to the actions of the AG. The Governor General did not pardon the possible unlawful actions of the AG when he pardoned the convicted visitor. And the pardon did not make his possible unlawful actions right. So, if the AG did something unlawful, then those actions still stand as unlawful.
We know that there are many who are thinking that this is just a tempest in a teacup. They rightfully say that justice was served as it relates to Martinez and this should never have reached the court in the first place. And it would have been a ‘nothing burger’ if that had happened, but that is not what happened. The woman was sentenced in a court of law, and according to the Bar Association, the actions taken to release the woman from prison were unlawful and remain so.
Now that the Governor General has ‘legitimised’ the release with a pardon, after the fact, all eyes are on the AG to explain his alleged unlawful actions. The AG has promised to give his interpretation of the laws he applied and upon which he relied to justify his actions. We eagerly await his response to the allegations.
Chief of Staff Lionel “Max” Hurst said that he is hopeful that the recently issued pardon ends the debate, but it will not. The pardon addressed Martinez’s conviction, but it does not address what is the main yes/no point – did the AG operate within the confines of the law and within his authority when he sanctioned the release of the 41-year-old mother of two?
We suspect that the situation will boil down to partisan politics, and we will end up nowhere beyond the AG disagreeing with the Bar Association. But that would be a dangerous precedent. There is a perception that the required separation of powers between the Executive and the Legislature has been eroded, or worse, no longer exists, and that perception must be addressed, regardless of what has been said about compassion, diplomatic relations, good intentions, honest mistake etc. All of the foregoing, as noble as they may be, cannot trump our laws. We subscribe to John Adams’ insistence that “We are a government of laws, not of men.”
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