Netherlands: Killer’s Grand Chamber complaint to renew European debate over ‘whole life’ jail sentences

A renewal of Europe’s debate over whole life tariffs is likely this month, when human rights judges consider a complaint from a convicted murderer against the Netherlands.

The applicant, James Clifton Murray, is a Dutch national who was born in 1953. He is officially detained in a Correctional Institution on the island of Aruba, part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in the southern Caribbean. It is understood that he is currently in a nursing home on the island of Curaçao due to health issues.

Murray’s complaint (Murray v. the Netherlands – no. 10511/10) will be heard at a 14 January Grand Chamber hearing.

The case concerns the legality and conditions of Murray’s imprisonment, which began following his conviction for murder in March 1980. Finding that he had killed a 6 year-old niece of a former girlfriend as revenge for her ending of their relationship, the court of the Netherlands Antilles imposed a life sentence on Murray. He launched an appeal, filed a request for revision, and has submitted repeated requests for pardons; however, all of these have been unsuccessful.

Murray served his sentence in a state prison on Curaçao until around 2000, when he was transferred to the Aruba Correctional Institution. In September 2012 the Aruba courts submitted Murray’s sentence to periodic review. Taking into account a number of psychological reports, which found that he suffers from mental health problems, the court decided that Murray’s imprisonment should continue as it still served a purpose after 33 years.

Murray complains that the imposition of a life sentence without possibility of regular review by a court and without hope of release violates Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) and Article 5 § 4 (right to have lawfulness of detention decided speedily by a court) of the European Convention on Human Rights. He also relies on Article 3 of the Convention to complain of the conditions of his detention; in particular, that the prison authorities did not protect inmates from inter-prisoner violence (which he had to witness), that he himself had been ill-treated by other prisoners, that he had not been placed in a special regime on account of his life sentence or mental condition, and that in late 2010 and early 2011 rainwater had flooded the prisoners’ cells.

Lastly, Murray relies on Article 5 § 1 (right to liberty and security) to complain that he is no longer a danger to society, that he has fulfilled the punitive part of his sentence, and that there is therefore no reason for his detention to continue.

In its chamber judgment of 10 December 2013 the Court held, unanimously, that there had been no violation of Article 3 either in respect of the life sentence, as a legal mechanism for reviewing life sentences had been introduced in Curaçao in November 2011, or in respect of Murray’s conditions of detention, as he had not developed his complaints in sufficient detail or provided sufficient information to prove that the conditions in which he was held had been inhuman and degrading.

On 14 April 2014 the case was referred to the Grand Chamber at Murray’s request.

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