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An historic case – Newton Spence v the Queen

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The name Newton Spence was well known in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It caught the attention of the public because Spence was tried in the courts of law for the murder of John Edwards, who was a passenger on his van. On January 15, 1995, Edwards alighted from the van without paying the fare. The owner/driver chased him and afterwards a gunshot rang out. Edwards was taken to the hospital and operated on, but he died the next day.{{more}}

Spence was charged with his death, and on October 26, 1995, he was convicted of the murder of Edwards in the High Court; but when the matter reached the Court of Appeal, it was quashed. Subsequently there was a retrial, but it resulted again in a conviction. In Court of Appeal No.14 of 1998, it was joined with Peter Hughes, after both cases had exhausted appeals against conviction. The issue of the mandatory sentence of death was raised in the Privy Council and the case was sent back to the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal to be decided. The landmark decision was made to quash the mandatory sentence of death and to remit the case to the High Court. There has been no death by hanging in SVG since 1995, but the death sentence has not been abolished. It is still on our statute books. The Newton Spence matter reached all the way to the Privy Council in Appeal No. 47 of 2000 and it is this case that we would discuss.

The Grounds of Appeal

For any appeal to take place, there must be grounds for appeal. These are based largely on something that the judge might have said and done or failed to say or do. In this case, three grounds were given for appeal by the defence, namely: the judgment in the High Court was allegedly invalid because one of the jurors was discharged from duty by the judge during the course of the trial; alleged failure of the judge to investigate a communication between two jurors; and misdirection in the summing up by the judge relating to what caused the death of the victim.

The issue of causation in the summing up

Their Lordships dealt firstly with the last matter relating to the judge’s handling of the issue of causation in the summing up. They came to the conclusion that the summing up of the case by the judge in the High court “was impeccable”. The defence brought a consultant surgeon who had access to the medical notes. The surgeon was of the view that the gunshot wound in the neck was given “a vertical incision” by the operating surgeon rather than “a transverse incision”, which would have been more suitable. This resulted in a large wound. In his view, there was no need for a tracheostomy. When asked by the judge, he opined that the medical treatment contributed to the death of the victim. He, however, conceded that the original wound would have contributed 30% to 40% of the cause of death. Their Lordships called attention to established law pertaining to death in relation to the situation in this case and Section 168 of the Criminal Code of the laws of St Vincent and the Grenadines 1990 Edition was invoked.

In short, the section states that a person could cause the death of another, even though his act was not the sole or immediate cause of death. If a person causes injury to another person and that person is given medical treatment which causes his death, “it is immaterial whether the treatment is mistaken if it was employed in good faith with common knowledge and skill ….”

Ada Johnson is a solicitor and barrister-at-law.
E-mail address is: [email protected]

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