It was an early morning for me and my driver. The three-hour trip from Masindi to Kampala saw us arrive at court in Kampala at 8:30 a.m., in time for the J-FASTER session to resume. On calendar today were two cases, one of which was the continuation of the only case so far to actually call witnesses. The defendant is a 17 year-old boy who is accused of aggravated robbery and murder. A boda boda (motorcycle) driver had been robbed, and when he fought back, he had been stabbed. The deceased lived for a week or so before succumbing to a secondary infection.
There were no eyewitnesses, so the case is circumstantial. The police report contains a few witness statements that, if believed, seem to be quite incriminating. The prosecution had summoned four witnesses to trial last Friday, but only one had shown up – the doctor who performed the post-mortem. He presented a compelling case that the deceased was, in fact, deceased. That is about it. Since none of the other three witnesses showed up, the prosecutor asked for an adjournment (what we call a continuance). The no-nonsense judge we have in this session was not happy, but granted the request, but seasoned it with a stern warning to ensure that the witness showed up when trial resumed.
When trial resumed today, only one additional witness showed up. He was the Local Council Chairman (think Mayor) and testified that he arrived on the scene after the stabbing and saw what he thought was a fast-moving boda boda going the opposite direction when he arrived. He speculated that the passenger on the boda boda had been the defendant. The judge in the case took an active role in the questioning and repeatedly chastised the witness for speculating. After his testimony, and left with absentee witnesses again, the prosecutor had no choice but to humbly seek yet another adjournment. “One more,” declared the judge. “If you cannot produce your witnesses next week, I will dismiss your case. One year is more than this child should have to wait in prison to have his day in court.”
I really feel for the prosecutor – the whole notion of contempt of court for failing to appear has yet to take hold in Uganda. Many witnesses have jobs and cannot come to court, or they lack the cash necessary to travel to court to testify. While they are promised reimbursement for their cost of transport, they often either don’t have the cash up front or the confidence on the back end that they will actually get reimbursed. Promises made by the government around here hold as much water as a two-year old with a bladder infection.
The second case was one that we thought we had resolved two weeks ago. It is a murder case that arose out of a dispute regarding the use of fishing boat. An argument between the two teenagers who had rented the boat on the one hand and the owner on the other had escalated into a shoving match, which then resulted in the owner slashing the arm of one of the renters with a panga (machete). One of the two renters then hit the owner in the head with an oar and the two ran. When the owner hadn’t given chase, they came back to see why not. Tragically, the oar blow had knocked him unconscious and he had fallen in the water and drowned. The only disputed fact was which one of the renters had hit the owner with the oar. Both, of course, blamed the others. Both were then charged with murder. One teenager was a juvenile (17), and the other was an adult (18).
During our plea bargaining session in late May, the prosecution had agreed to reduce the charges against the juvenile to Manslaughter in exchange for a guilty plea. When the charges were read against the child two weeks ago, he pled guilty. But when the statement of facts was read by the prosecutor, the child had disputed the part that said he had hit the deceased with the oar. Accordingly, the judge rejected the guilty plea and the case was set for trial today. This morning, however, the prosecution and both defense lawyers (we had insisted that both defendants be separately represented) reached a deal whereby both defendants would plead to Manslaughter. That way, neither faced a Murder conviction, and the prosecution avoided the chance of losing both cases. This is how plea bargaining works. It was quite gratifying to facilitate this resolution. The adult was sentenced to time served (nine months) plus an additional ten months, which will likely result in him serving another few months under their current “remission” structure for good behavior. The juvenile will be sentenced next week by the Magistrate Judge – the High Court Judge is not empowered to sentence juveniles, but this nonsensical rule will (mercifully) change later this year. It is likely that the child will be sentence to something short of what the adult got, so he will likely be going home soon.
Two more cases are on tap for tomorrow morning.
While I was disappointed to miss the epic USA v. Uganda soccer match (Uganda won 3-1), and while I wish I had been there for the final goodbyes, I heard from others that everything went according to plan up in Masindi. Also, I will be returning to Masindi in two weeks for a plea bargaining session and will visit the children again.
Jay Milbrandt has posted several pictures from yesterday on his website here, so you can see in living color how things looked at the Ihungu Remand Home.