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Promoting Good Governance.

SPECIAL REPORT: SAVED FROM DEATH ROW

By Kevwe Ebireri

Olatunji Olaide’s story is a very pathetic one. It is the kind of sad tale that brings tears to the eyes. It is a story of injustice, cruelty, brutality and torture, pain, loss, waste and of a cruel fate meted out to an innocent man.

But he is also a very lucky man.He was released from prison last year after 24 years of wrongful detention, 17 of which he spent on the death-row awaiting the hangman’s noose.

Olaide left Lagos in 1988 for Birnin-Gwari in Kaduna State to buy cows, goats and rams.

His dream of returning quickly to Lagos with his purchase and making a good profit was cut short when he was arrested at the Gwari bush market between Niger and Kaduna states by some policemen who claimed that he and other suspects had abandoned a stolen vehicle on the road and had run into the bush.

He narrated that after series of interrogations in Niger State, and despite his claim of innocence and confirmation as a visiting trader by the interpreter who was with him when he was arrested; he was handed over to an anti-robbery squad from Lagos and transferred to Adeniji Adele Police Station where, according to him, he went to hell and back.

He said it was when he got to Lagos that he got to know that he had been arrested for murder because the owner of the car which was snatched had been killed.

“That was the day I knew they were accusing me of murder. They said somebody was killed in Lagos and his car was snatched and they later found the car around the village where I was in Gwari. The policemen said the people fled into the bush that was why they were looking for visitors around that area.”

“I was with N325, 000 cash which I wanted to use to buy cows. The money followed me up to Ilorin but when we got to Lagos, I didn’t hear anything about the money again. The Police men did not give me or my family members,” he said.

Olaide alleged that at the police station, the policemen wrote a confessional statement which they forced him to sign after beating and torturing him.

After a trial at a Lagos High Court where he was arraigned for murder, Justice A. O Silvia sentenced him to death.

While in prison, Olaide’s wife left to marry another man but he bears no grudge, reasoning philosophically that if she had told him, he would have consented to her new marriage, as there was little hope of his ever getting out a free man.

Apart from his wife, he also lost his two children. He last saw them before his arrest and since his release he has not tried to look for them. His reason is that he has no job for now and lives with his younger brother, who also has a family. So looking for his children might bring upon him a burden he is not in a position to bear.

He said despite his family’s best effort to free him, no respite came, as the lawyers hired for the purpose merely collected fees and failed to make any headway.

However, by divine providence, the Court of Appeal on June 6, 2012 discharged and acquitted him upon an appeal after spending 24 years behind bars.He went in as a 32 year-old looking to the future with hope. He came out as a disillusioned 56 year-old man with a wasted youth and an uncertain future.

Before his freedom, he was one of the longest serving prisoners at Maximum Security Prison, Kirikiri.

When icirnigeria.orgspoke to Olaide about a week ago, although he was calm and philosophical about his sorrowful experience, he bore the tell-tale signs of a rough deal in the hands of fate. He had lost his left eye, following what he claimed was negligence on the part of prison authorities.

For the same reason, he has also lost the use of his right arm. In fact, he alleged that his arm was damaged due to torture while he was still in police detention.

Olaide is one of many Nigerians who have been wrongfully convicted and punished for offences they never committed. But he is still one of the lucky ones as many were executed without their case getting an appeal.

In his case, as in many others, the Nigerian Police have received the most blame for this type of miscarriage of justice, using the instrument of the law.

Miscarriage of justice is primarily the conviction and punishment of a person for a crime they did not commit and can exist in two forms – the error of falsely identifying culpability arising from lack of painstaking investigationor the error of impunity which fails to find a culpable person guilty.

In the case of Laide, it was, perhaps, both as the police after failing in their investigation in a murder case found an innocent person to hang the crime on.

Whatever the case, the increasing incidence of upturning death sentences upon appeal in court is bothering many people, particularly lawyers and human rights activists. Such persons and opponents of capital punishment point at examples such as Olaide’s to justify the campaign against death sentence.

It is often said in law that it is better for ten criminals to go unpunished than for one innocent person to be punished and wrongful convictions are frequently cited by death penalty opponents as reason to eliminate death penalties to avoid executing innocent persons.

Even though most criminal justice systems have some means to overturn, or “quash” a wrongful conviction, it is often difficult to achieve and in some instances a wrongful conviction is not overturned for several years, or until after the innocent person has been executed or died after languishing for several years.

Where condemned persons are executed promptly after conviction, the most significant effect of a miscarriage of justice is irreversible.

In June this year, there was public outburst of criticism against capital punishment when the Edo State government hanged three out of four condemned criminals.

Amnesty International and other civil society organisations condemned the action and urged the federal government to exercise restraint in the use of death penalties in respect of the existing de facto moratorium on executions which has been in place in the country since 2006.

And there appears to be enough justification for those who take such a position. The Legal Defence and Assistance Project, LEDAP, quoted statistics from the Nigeria law reports on death penalty cases compiled between 2006 – 2011 as showing that 39 per cent of death sentences by trial courts were quashed on appeal within the period, indicating a high risk of wrongful convictions and sentences.

LEDAP’s coordinator, Chino Obiagwu, a legal practitioner, who was instrumental inOlaide’s release is one of those opposed to capital punishment and he described the execution of the Edo three, in spite of the pendency of their appeal and motion for stay of execution, as unlawful, adding that it amounts to “a total disregard for the rule of law and judicial process in any democratic system”.

Justifying his position, he said an analysis of the total number of death sentences passed by the various divisions of High Court of various states appealed between 2006 and 2011 shows that 69 out of the 113 appeal cases, 26 were quashed by the Supreme Court, while another 22 were upturned by various divisions of the Court of Appeal.

Many lawyers say that the foundation of wrongful conviction, especially in the case ofa  criminal offence which is a crime against the state and carries capital punishment penalties, is often laid by the police which is empowered by law to carry out investigation and prosecution.

To Chike Okoroafor, a lawyer, the journey to a right or wrong conviction starts with an arrest.“Of course when you talk about wrongful conviction it starts from the police, it starts from the arrest because before anybody is arraigned in court, he must have been arrested. You and I know that we are in a country where a whole lot of persons have been convicted wrongly,” he said.

He also added that from time to time the police in a bid to carry out their responsibilities go beyond the limits of the law. “Sometimes you see police cook up evidence…the court would rely on the evidence provided to convict or acquit a suspect. When the evidence of the police is such that it has been so cooked, it has been so framed, so concocted asmuch to make the court believe it is genuine, the court would have no option.”

Okoroafor proposed that the laws dealing with power to prosecute should be fortified and handled by only people who have proven integrity, competence and are disciplined.

“I am suggesting that ICPC (the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission) should employ more lawyers, anamendment to the police act and making the issue of prosecution the responsibility of ICPC alone.”

John Ainetor, a human rights lawyer at the Festus Keyamo Chambers is of the opinion that poor handling of cases on thepart of defence lawyers is also a major factor responsible for miscarriage of justice and wrongful conviction, particularly the death sentence.

He said according to the principles of law, the judge is an impartial umpire that takes decisions based on the evidence adduced before him in the court  -“it is not for him to go outside the court on a voyage of enquiry”.

“Its 50-50. You can have a case today where someone is convicted and a similar case tomorrow, someone is not convicted. This has a lot to do with the brilliance of the counsel. Persons who are hired to represent accused persons should be more diligent and thorough,” he said.

Ainetor stressed that evidence presented before the court play a crucial role in determining whether a person is convicted or acquitted, adding that sometimes too where inadequate evidence is presented to the court, a guilty person may be set free or, worse still, an innocent person sent to jail.

However wrongful convictions come, what is certain is that victims who are lucky to get their sentences overturned are usually scarred for life and abandoned by the system that stole their freedom.

Many who eventually regain their freedom after long years in prison suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, inferiority complex, anger, anti-social behaviours and, sometimes, a general disaffection with society.

Physically too, they have aged ahead of their peers, and often their health has suffered from years of sub-standard prison health care. They are released into a society that has changed dramatically from what they knew – family members have passed away, children have grown, spouses and partners have moved on.

Most worrying of all, perhaps, is that such persons are abandoned, left to suffer their injustice alone without any kind of compensation.

Although there have been corrections of wrongful convictions which has helped to build faith in the judicial system, what the public would like to see is a better compensation system that can let wrongly jailed people have a normal life and harsher punishments for those who wronged them, otherwise the wrongs will never be truly corrected.

For advocates of the abrogation of capital punishment, there are too many considerations that weigh against taking human life no matter the offence. Above every other reason, however, appears to be the possibility that by some twist of fate, a sleight of hand or a failing in investigative or prosecution processes, an innocent person might end up in the gallows.

But equally strident are the voices that insist that there must always be the deterrent of capital punishment for certain categories of crimes.

In defending his action of signing the death warrant of the three persons killed recently in his state, Edo State governor said that he would continue to sign the death warrant of armed robbers, kidnappers and other criminals who kill their victims if the law ever catches up with them.

Ainetoralso opposed the call for the abrogation of death sentences saying such an action would lead to anarchy.“The law is the law. The law says that if you are guilty of murder, you should also be killed,” he said.

Another lawyer, Chris Ebenebeopposes the removal of capital punishment because of the way people wilfully and easily take other people’s lives.

‘If you see the way people kill today.  For 10 naira, some people can kill.When police demand N20, if you don’t pay they shoot you. Husbands kill their wives for the slightest provocation,” he observed, adding that there has to be a legal deterrent from killing others.

He said Nigeria has not yet come of age to warrant the repeal of death sentences, adding that “even some states in America that allow people to carry arms freely are now revisiting the law because many people are not as matured as we think”.

“Capital punishment must be there because the fear of paying with your own life would deter people from committing crimes,” Ebenebe reasoned.

However, that position does not help people like Olaide who committed no crime, killed nobody, but suffered not only imprisonment but also nearly three decades on death row. Even worse, for such unfortunate ones, not only has their youth been wasted, their future is equally bleak.

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