Saturday, May 3, 2008

Life sentences under European judicial review

Under consideration by the European Court of Human Rights: whether sentences to life in prison violate the ban on "torture or ... inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,"
contained in Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Strasbourg-based Court heard argument Wednesday in the case of 71-year-old Lucien Léger. Having received une réclusion perpétuelle, a life sentence, in 1966, he was France's longest-serving inmate, with 41 years in prison; indeed, on account of repeated refusals of his requests for parole, his was, in effect, a sentence of "LWOP," or life without parole. LeMonde reported that Léger's 2002 bid for ECHR relief had been rejected in 2006, on the ground that "imprisonment for life does not constitute inhuman treatment if the person is not deprived of all hope of obtaining adjustment of the penalty" -- an adjustment that Léger had secured with his conditional release in 2005, while his ECHR case was pending. Two ECHR judges dissented from that decision, however, among them the French judge, Jean-Paul Costa (left), now the Court's President. Eventually the Court agreed to rehear the case by means of its Grand Chamber.
And so on Wednesday, the Court heard Léger's case (webcast here). "Dressed entirely in black, clasping his hands together and occasionally holding a pencil," wrote LeMonde's Alain Salles, Léger "listened patiently to the arguments, in which he did not have the right to take part." He displayed "signs of denial," and his attorney, Jean-Jacques de Felice, objected outright, "when Anne-Françoise Tissier, the government's lawyer, said that his sentence was justified because he'd shown no remorse" for the crime of conviction, murder of an 11-year-old child. But de Felice reserved his greatest condemnation for the sentence itself:
'Society has the right to judge and to imprison him, but not the right to kill in him, bit by bit, all hope of freedom, all prospect of return to society.'

Given challenges in California and elsewhere in the United States to LWOP sentences -- particularly those imposed on children -- it's worth keeping an eye open for the ultimate decision of this regional human rights court.

(Cross-posted at Slate's Convictions blog)

No comments: