20 November 2023 :
On 14 November 2023, Wenceslaus James, the longest serving death row inmate in the country, was released by order of the High Court of Trinidad and Tobago. Convicted for murder in 1996, Wenceslaus received the mandatory death sentence for the offence.
The Death Penalty Project (DPP) worked on the case alongside UK barrister Amanda Clift-Matthews and local attorney Daniel Khan in a lengthy legal battle for his release.
Having spent 24-years on death row, and over three decades in custody, Wenceslaus James is the longest serving death row inmate in the country. Throughout his detention, he has suffered extraordinary conditions on death row, including a near-death experience, when in 1999 his scheduled execution was halted without warning at the very last minute.
One morning in 1999, Wenceslaus was read his warrant of execution. He was taken to a cell awaiting execution, where he recalls “there was blood and vomit and excrement on the floor from the previous persons waiting to be hanged.” Adding to this horrifying experience, that morning he also heard the execution of his cell mate and co-defendant Antony Briggs.
With his execution seemingly imminent, suddenly without explanation he was taken back to his cell. He was not executed that day.
In the same year as his near-death experience, living in a cell right next to the gallows, Wenceslaus lived with the anguish and trauma of hearing nine other executions take place.
Wenceslaus, recalling the execution of his cell mate and co-defendant, said: “I could see the rope and hear the snap of the trapdoor. It still haunts me. I feel sick and weak. It was the most horrible experience of my life.”
Wenceslaus was convicted under the felony-murder principles. Had his case been heard now, based on the current law, the death sentence would not be mandatory, and he would be sentenced to a fixed term of imprisonment.
The High Court resentenced Wenceslaus to a determinate sentence, which he has already served. Wenceslaus James has now been released from prison.
Saul Lehrfreund, Co-Executive Director of The Death Penalty Project who led the legal team, said:
“We are delighted with the decision of the High Court of Trinidad and Tobago to release Wenceslaus. Having served such an extraordinary amount of time and suffering on death row, there was a clear breach on his constitutional rights. Trinidad and Tobago is the only country in the Commonwealth Caribbean to continue using a mandatory death penalty and the government themselves accept the mandatory imposition of the death penalty is cruel and inhuman punishment. We have worked extensively in Trinidad & Tobago for more than three decades and will continue do so and focus our efforts on legislative reform until this barbaric practice is abolished.”