Grand Chamber to deliver judgment on murderer’s complaint about sentence



The European Court of Human Rights will be delivering a Grand Chamber judgment in the case of Murray v the Netherlands at a public hearing on 26 April.

The case concerns the complaint by a man convicted of murder in 1980, who consecutively served his life sentence on the islands of Curaçao and Aruba (part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands) – until being granted a pardon in 2014 due to his deteriorating health –, about his life sentence without any realistic prospect of release and about the conditions of his detention.

The applicant, James Clifton Murray, complained in particular that the imposition of a life sentence without an adequate possibility of review and without hope of release had notably violated article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment).

He also relied on article 3 of the Convention for his complaint that there was no special regime for persons sentenced to life imprisonment and that he had not been placed in a regime befitting his mental condition. He argued that, never having been provided with any psychiatric treatment, the risk of his reoffending would continue to be considered too high to be eligible for release.

Mr Murray passed away while the case was pending before the Grand Chamber. Two of his relatives have subsequently pursued his case before the court.

Mr Murray, a Dutch national, was born in 1953 and died in November 2014. In October 1979 Mr Murray was found guilty of the murder of a six-year-old girl on the island of Curaçao (part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in the southern Caribbean) and initially sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment. On appeal, in March 1980, the Joint Court of Justice of the Netherlands Antilles upheld the conviction and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

The court found it proven that Mr Murray had deliberately killed the girl, who was the niece of his former girlfriend, as revenge for the latter ending their relationship. It referred to a psychiatrist’s report drawn up at the request of the public prosecutor, which diagnosed Mr Murray as “retarded, infantile and narcissistic” and recommended that he receive institutional treatment for a lengthy period or that attempts be made in the prison setting to attain a stronger personality structure in order to avoid recidivism.

Since no order for placement in a custodial clinic could be imposed in the Netherlands Antilles, the court found that only a sentence of life imprisonment was suitable in his case to protect society from recidivism. Mr Murray’s appeal was dismissed by the Supreme Court in November 1980. Mr Murray initially served his sentence in a prison in Curaçao, his first 13 years there being marked by incidents, in particular fights, extortion and drug abuse, resulting in periods spent in solitary confinement.

In 1999 he was transferred to another prison on the island of Aruba at his own request in order to be closer to his family. During his detention there, he significantly improved his behaviour. Over the years he repeatedly submitted requests for pardons, which were rejected by the Governor of the Netherlands Antilles, relying on the advice by the Joint Court of Justice which, on several occasions, essentially found that Mr Murray continued to pose a risk of recidivism.

Following an amendment of the Curaçao Criminal Code in 2011, which prescribed periodic reviews of sentences of life imprisonment – and which continued to apply to Mr Murray after his transfer to Aruba – his sentence was submitted for such review to the Joint Court of Justice in September 2012.

Taking into account a number of psychological reports, which found that he continued to suffer from mental health problems, namely an antisocial personality disorder, the court decided that his imprisonment should continue as it still served a purpose after 33 years. Having been diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2013, Mr Murray was eventually granted a pardon on 31 March 2014 due to his deteriorating health.

Mr Murray complained in particular that the imposition of a life sentence without an adequate possibility of review and without hope of release had notably violated article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment).

He also relied on article 3 of the Convention to complain of the conditions of his detention; in particular, that there was no special regime for persons sentenced to life imprisonment and that he had not been placed in a regime befitting his mental condition. He argued that, never having been provided with any psychiatric treatment, the risk of his reoffending would continue to be considered too high to be eligible for release.