By NICO SCAVELLA
Tribune Staff Reporter
A DOUBLE rapist has lost in his bid to have the country’s highest court overturn a lower court’s decision to dismiss his appeal of one of his sentences without hearing the matter first.
The Privy Council, in a written ruling, set aside Melvin Saunders’ petition to have the London-based tribunal prove the appellate court’s error in dismissing his appeal without holding an “oral hearing”.
In doing so, the London court affirmed Saunders’ 14-year sentence for the crime. That sentence succeeds a 25-year sentence for raping another woman that was imposed in 1995.
The Privy Council noted the “desirability and importance” of the provision of public funding to “impecunious defendants” who face “grave criminal charges in circumstances where complex issues of scientific expert evidence arise”.
On October 15, 1996, Saunders was convicted by a vote of 8-4 of raping a woman three years prior on June 22, 1993. He was acquitted of an armed robbery that was alleged to have been committed during the rape. He was consequently sentenced to 14 years and 12 lashes for the crime.
The sentence was ordered to run consecutively to a 25-year sentence he was already serving for raping another woman.
During trial, the woman testified that on June 22, 1993, she was grabbed in the street by Saunders who threatened her with a knife and dragged her into woods where he raped her. She said she did not look at him because he said he would kill her if she did.
During the rape, some of Saunders’ sperm got onto her leg; the rapist consequently used a piece of tissue to wipe the bodily fluids away. She was then bound and blindfolded, put in a car, and taken to a beach where he raped her again. She was then driven back to a location close to where she had first been abducted and released.
At no point did she see her attacker’s face.
The woman, after being dropped off, then ran to the lobby of the resort where she was staying. The police were called and she and her husband went to the hospital.
The following morning, the woman accompanied police to the location of the first rape, where an officer found a piece tissue that he preserved as an exhibit. On August 23, 1993, samples were taken from Saunders with his consent.
During the trial, Keith Howland, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agent, was called as an expert witness in the field of DNA analysis. His evidence was that he was able to identify two different DNA profiles from the piece of tissue; one relating to the woman and one relating to Saunders.
While being cross-examined, Mr Howland explained that there was a possibility of the stain not coming from Saunders. In answer to questions by Saunders’ attorney at the time, Bradley Cooper, on whether he might find another person with the same DNA profile from the black race, Mr Howland said he would have to sample more than 100 million individuals before he might find a match. In response to questions from the jury, the special agent further explained that only identical twins would have the same DNA, and that even if brothers shared the same DNA, after testing four locations he could test further locations and there would be a difference.
Saunders was ultimately convicted of rape and sentenced. He subsequently petitioned the Court of Appeal with regards to his 14-year sentence on two occasions, once on October 16, 1996 and the other roughly two decades later.
On October 7, 1997, the Court of Appeal dismissed Saunders’ appeal and consequently affirmed both his conviction and sentence without giving any reasons for having done so, according to the Privy Council’s ruling.
Almost two decades later, in 2014, Saunders appeared before then-Senior Justice Jon Isaacs, who now serves as a judge in the Court of Appeal, on a constitutional motion founded on claims that he was being held in prison for longer that he lawfully should.
At the time, Saunders argued that the second sentence was improper based on the Court of Appeal’s decision in the Andrew Bridgewater case regarding punishment for first time and second and/or subsequent rape offences. In that case, seven years was ruled for the first offence and 14 years for the second and/or subsequent rape.
His attorney at that time, Ramona Farquharson-Seymour, argued that based on the law at the time and the ruling of the Court of Appeal, her client should have only been given 14 years imprisonment and that he ought to receive damages for the number of years that he was held unconstitutionally.
The lawyer did admit, when asked, that the flogging aspect of his punishment had not been carried out. Nonetheless, Mrs Farquharson-Seymour concluded that her client had been agitating for his release for some time and was asking for the court to hear his motion “because a day in Fox Hill is quite hard.”
In February 2016, Saunders applied to the Court of Appeal for it to vary the 14-year sentence imposed in 1996 on the ground that his time spent on remand—22 months—had not been taken into account when he was sentenced nor when he appealed to the appellate court in 1997. However, the appellate judges unanimously dismissed his appeal, asserting they were not satisfied he had “made out a case for us to interfere with the sentence imposed some 20 years ago”.
Saunders then petitioned the Privy Council, asserting that his recent appeal was dismissed “without an oral hearing”.
In its written ruling, the Privy Council noted that Saunders’ appeal came before it in “very unsatisfactory circumstances”. The Board noted that the history of the matter was “incomplete”, and at such a “late date”, it was “not surprising that it is often undocumented”.
The Privy Council further noted that in “many respects”, it is “not possible to confirm from contemporary records the accuracy” of the account that Saunders provided. However, the Privy Council said it was “greatly assisted” at the hearing of the matter by Saunders’ counsel, James Wood, QC, who acted pro bono.
Nonetheless, in addressing Saunders’ concerns about the DNA evidence, the Privy Council noted that in all the circumstances, the present case was not one in which Saunders was denied the opportunity to obtain expert evidence; conversely, the court said it came to the “clear conclusion” that any application for samples for the purposes of obtaining expert DNA evidence “was not pursued”.
The London court found that the trial judge gave an “entirely appropriate direction” to the jury that the matters of fact were for their decision and that they “need not accept any opinion expressed by the judge”. In those circumstances, the London tribunal said they had no reason “to doubt the safety of the conviction”.