It struck me today that my time in Uganda is coming to a close. We are “wheels up” four weeks from today. I am frequently asked whether I am ready to leave and/or looking forward to going home. As is usually the case toward the end of lengthy trips, the answer to such questions is complicated. We certainly miss our family and friends and look forward to reuniting with them, but we will very much miss Uganda also. Before we go, though, much remains to be done, including in court.
Today was the last day the court was hearing cases this week, and it was every bit as interesting as yesterday. The first case called involved a boy whom everyone (including his fellow prisoners) is convinced is mentally unstable. I know jack about jack in this area, but it seems to me that he is autistic. When I first met the boy, it was immediately obvious he was several shillings short of a full dollar. He was noticeably detached and he assiduously avoided eye contact. His emotions and body language failed to track that of the other boys when we spoke as a group.
According to the police report, the facts of his case are undisputed. He allegedly confessed to brutally and premeditatedly murdering an employee of his family’s metal working business. He had purportedly snuck into the hut where the man was sleeping and unleashed a flurry of furious panga strokes that spilled the decedent’s guts out onto the ground. The apparent motive was fear that the decedent would take over the family’s business after the boy’s father died, which had just happened.
When the session started two weeks ago, the judge granted the defense’s motion to have the boy examined by a doctor to determine whether he was fit to stand trial in the murder case against him. Accordingly, his case was adjourned to the following week. While he was being examined at the mental hospital, however, he requested permission to make a short call (number one). Instead, he scaled the wall and disappeared. That was a week ago Sunday. The next day, a matatu driver (public taxi) called the police and reported that there was very strange boy in his taxi that was headed to Naguru. While detained by the police, the boy told them that he had escaped from a mental institution, found his way to his family’s house where he spent the night, and then was on his way back to the Naguru Remand Home because he was due back in court the next day. It is thus clear that the boy is picking up what the judge is putting down, even if that doesn’t appear to be the case.
When his case was called again last week, the probation officers reported that due to his escape, the doctor hadn’t finished his evaluative report. It was promised by the next day. Accordingly, the case was again adjourned until today. Unsurprisingly, when the case was called again today, the report was still not finished – adjourned to next week.
The second case called today was another murder case against a juvenile and an adult. During our plea bargaining session at the end of May, the lawyer for the adult had indicated that his client would plead guilty to murder and would exonerate the child who had been charged with him. The prosecution had accepted this tentative deal. Before court started today, however, there was some serious waffling as the defense tried to convince the prosecution to drop the charges from murder to manslaughter for the adult. The prosecution held firm, so it appeared that the case would go forward against both the adult and the juvenile. Bummer. When the charges were read, we all held our breaths until the translator said “guilty” shortly after the “how do you plead?” question was asked by the judge. Over the next few minutes, the juvenile’s case was dismissed and the defendant was sentenced to sixteen years. Had he chosen not to plead guilty and had been found guilty, he likely would have been given a death sentence. (Uganda hasn’t actually executed someone in several years, but the sentences are still being delivered).
The third and final case called involved two adults and one child being charged with the murder of herdsman in what appears to have been a cow-theft murder scenario. The juvenile had been released on bail several months ago and now was nowhere to be found. The court dismissed the case against the juvenile, and the case against the other two proceeded. As I mentioned previously, the judge in this session is no-nonsense and was not at all pleased with the proficiency of the direct examination of the prosecution. She repeatedly interrupted the questioning in an effort to keep the questions both relevant and succinct. I felt sorry for the prosecutors as it was clear that they had not received proper training in questioning witnesses. The bigger problem, however, was one for which there is no ready solution.
The witnesses in these cases are quite poor and thus cannot afford to come to the prosecutor’s office to meet in advance of the trial. Likewise, the prosecutors cannot afford to spend their own money to travel to villages to meet with the witnesses, and they are not “facilitated” with funds to allow this to happen. Moreover, the prosecutors are not given phones to call witnesses, so any calls to witnesses would have to be paid for out of the prosecutor’s own pocket. And since their monthly salary is 850,000 (about $340), they cannot afford the pre-paid airtime minutes. Adding insult to injury, many of the witnesses don’t speak either English or Luganda, so there is often a third party needed to interpret. As a result, the prosecutors wait outside the courtroom until the witnesses arrive, just hoping for a chance to talk for a few minutes before direct examination begins. The combined effect of all of this is a less-than-succinct presentation.
We got through two witnesses before the court mercifully called it quits for the day. Trial resumes on Monday.
One prayer request before I close. Over the past week, Henry has been wrestling with his second case of Malaria this year. He thought he was getting better, but then took a turn for the worst. Yesterday morning, I received a call from his school asking me to come pick him up to take him for immediate treatment. So after court ended, I hustled out to his school to get him. He was asleep in the nurse’s office and looked like hell. I had called Joline in Kenya and she had remotely arranged for me to bring Henry to the medical clinic with which the Gregstons and my family have been working this year. They saw him immediately and gave him a different kind of Malaria medication than he has been taking. I haven’t heard from him today, which I am choosing to take as a good sign.