EDITORIAL: What is the lesson?

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We have to admit that we did not expect the early release of Shannon Martinez to cause this much of an uproar. It is not very often that we hear from prominent lawyers on serious matters, and the Bar Association even less. So, it is with great wonder that we stand witness to the backlash to the actions taken by the Superintendent of Prisons and Deputy Police Commissioner Albert Wade, who made the recommendation for the early release, and Attorney General Steadroy “Cutie” Benjamin, who effected it.  
For those not up-to-date, Shannon Martinez, her husband and their two children came to Antigua on a short vacation from Austin, Texas. During the airport departure process in Antigua, security discovered 20 rounds of 9mm ammunition in her suitcase and arrested the mother of two.  She explained that it was a simple oversight on her part when packing. But she found herself convicted for unlawful possession and was sentenced to a mandatory one-year minimum term under the new Firearms Act. Within one day of her incarceration, she was released and she returned home. 
That has brought us to this point. The early release and, more particularly, the process for securing the early release, have the legal fraternity in an uproar. The general feeling by those who have spoken out is that there is no legal foundation for granting the early release in the manner in which it was done, and the entire matter is a breach of the sanctity of the political doctrine of constitutional law under which the three branches of government – executive, legislative, and judicial – are kept separate to prevent abuse of power.
No fewer than three lawyers have spoken out on the matter and, according to one, Nelleen Murdoch, the authorities executed an “attack on the very fabric of democracy” in the way the matter was handled. She said, “One cannot correct the wrong that may have been done to an individual by shredding the fabric of the very instrument that has been crafted for the protection of us all. There is and remains a considerably larger picture here than the hardship to the visitor in this situation. No one should be permitted to erode the constitutional norms and principles as has been done in this case.” She has called upon the Bar Association, as gatekeepers of society, to act swiftly in relation to this matter.   
Now, we have already indicated that we think that justice was served. Martinez was no hardened criminal attempting to traffic illegal ammunition, and we cannot see any upside to incarcerating her for a year. We do, however, see a lot of downside should we have kept firm on the issue and separated her from her family for a year. That said, we agree, and have already stated that the entire situation was badly handled. A key contributor to the situation is the mandatory sentencing of the newly implemented Firearms Act. If we expand the discussion with the hope of learning from this incident, while advancing the discussion beyond where it is today, there must be some acknowledgments of where things went wrong.  
The first thing that we must do is acknowledge that mandatory sentencing rarely solves the problems that triggered its implementation and usually creates more. Murdoch referred to this point and said this situation is a result of a failure of the legislators to take the recommendation of commentators on the 2017 [Firearms Amendment] Bill. That is the one that removed the discretion magistrates had in determining appropriate sentencing in gun crimes. It appears that the desire to be tough on gun crime caused everyone to become shortsighted and possible repercussions were either ignored or pushed aside.
The next step is to fix the problems that got us in this mess. The lawyers are adamant that the process was ‘illegal,’ while the attorney general is defending his actions and had added fuel to the fire by saying that it is not the first time under the labour party administration that a person’s sentence has been remitted. Taking a ‘we have done it before, so what is the big deal’ stance in the face of criticism that this is an “attack on the very fabric of democracy” is not a good move. It simply sends the wrong message and damages people’s trust in the judicial system. 
The lawyers are absolutely right that there needs to be a separation of the three branches of government – executive, legislative, and judicial. So, if the attorney general cannot point to the authority that grants him the power to do what he did, then he needs to ‘man-up’ and say that he erred. We must add that the converse is true as well. If the AG has the authority to do what he did, then that needs to be acknowledged. What we cannot have is another case of wrong and strong because that just makes our judicial system one big pappy show.
We invite you to visit www.antiguaobserver.com and give us your feedback on our opinions.

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