By NICO SCAVELLA
Tribune Staff Reporter
A FORMER drug dealer sentenced to effectively 60 years in prison for murdering a rival drug dealer in order to protect his “turf” almost 20 years ago has had his sentence shortened by almost one-third by the Court of Appeal to reflect a more “appropriate” sentence.
Former Court of Appeal President Dame Anita Allen, along with since departed fellow Justices Abdulah Conteh and Neville Adderley, quashed Ernest Lockhart’s 60-year sentence for murdering Caxton Smith, and instead imposed a sentence of 45 years.
This, the appellate judges said in a written ruling, would further be reduced by three years to reflect the time Lockhart spent on remand. The consequent 42 years would thus commence from the date of his conviction in 2006.
The judgement was posted on the court’s website on December 14.
According to the ruling, Lockhart was convicted and sentenced to death on July 24, 2006, for the 1999 murder of Smith at Fowler Street in New Providence. According to the ruling, Lockhart murdered Smith to “protect” his turf – the territory in which he conducted his drug business.
Lockhart subsequently appealed both his conviction and sentence to the appellate court, and though differently constituted at the time, his appeal and sentence were both affirmed.
He then appealed to the London-based Privy Council who, on August 9, 2011, remitted the matter to the COA with a direction that it should remit the question of sentence to the Supreme Court. On January 27, 2012, then-Senior Justice Jon Isaacs considered that a sentence of 60 years from the date of Lockhart’s conviction would be appropriate in the circumstances of the case.
However, counsel for the Crown suggested to the court that the sentence should instead run from the date of imposition, and subsequently relied on the COA decision of Cornelius Knowles and others. On that basis, Lockhart’s sentence was recalculated to run from the date of re-sentencing – January 27, 2012, so that he would serve 54 years imprisonment.
According to the ruling, Lockhart’s appeal is on the ground that the trial judge “erred in principle” by determining the appropriate sentence for him that the sentence is “too severe”. Lockhart submitted that the judge failed to give “adequate weight” to the mitigating factors in his favour, that the judge failed to consider comparable cases, and that the judge “erred in focusing his mind on punishment and retribution” and simultaneously “giving little weight to the circumstances of the offender and his prospect of rehabilitation”.
The Crown countered by submitting the sentencing judge did not exercise his discretion unreasonably by taking into account “irrelevant matters” or by failing to consider relevant matters. The Crown further submitted that before an appellate court can interfere with a sentence, the court must be satisfie the sentence passed was unduly severe or excessive.
Ultimately, the appellate judges ruled Lockhart’s appeal should be allowed “as the learned judge at the re-sentencing hearing erred when he started at the top end of 60 years as appropriate for a murder offence.
“The murder for which the appellant was convicted in the instant case, deplorable as it was, was not so heinous or depraved or the worst of the worst as to merit that level, as the learned president correctly stated...” the ruling said.
“Accordingly, I agree that the appeal against sentence should be allowed and the term substituted is appropriate.”
Lockhart’s appeal stems from a murder that took place on June 8, 2009. According to the ruling, sometime on the day in question, Smith, 23, was shot in Fowler Street and died shortly afterwards from the injuries he sustained as a result of a single gunshot wound to the back.
At the trial for Smith’s murder, Lockhart, then 21 years of age, was identified as the gunman who fired the fatal shot, while Jeffrey Prospero had acted as a look-out.
Both Smith and Lockhart were drug dealers at the time; prior to his death, Smith had been convicted of selling drugs and had served a term of imprisonment. The trial judge found the murder had been carried out by Lockhart in order to protect his turf.
And although it was not “expertly executed,” the ruling noted, the killing was planned by Lockhart with others.
According to the ruling, the trial judge, in his sentencing remarks, recounted evidence given by the deceased’s girlfriend. She testified that some six months before the deceased was killed, he was threatened by Lockhart, who told Smith something to the effect that if Smith thought he had come out of prison to take bread out of Lockhart’s mouth, he would be killed.
Smith’s girlfriend also said a bout two weeks before the killing, Lockhart and another individual came to the home she shared with Smith. On that occasion, she said, the second man spoke with Smith outside the house but she could hear what was being said. That man asked Smith to sell drugs for him and Lockhart, but Smith replied by saying he was not interested.
At that point, Smith’s girlfriend said Lockhart, who had been lurking by a coconut tree, said something to the effect that because Smith did not wish to sell drugs for them, “he could die like others before him.”