Nearly two and a half years ago, my love affair with Africa began in a juvenile prison in a sleepy town in central Uganda called Masindi. I arrived with three other law graduates from Pepperdine hoping to do what we could to assist twenty-one minors who had been arrested and charged with crimes, but had not yet been to trial. Some of them had been waiting for their day in court for nearly two years.
Earlier today, I arrived back in Masindi with three American lawyers – Jay Milbrandt, who had been with me on my first trip, Carol Chase, academic dean at Pepperdine Law, and Michael Mudgett, recovering lawyer who serves as a pastor at Malibu Presbyterian Church. We were also joined by ten Pepperdine law students and one Regent law student. Our three-day task will be to brief the cases for approximately twenty-five juveniles who are being warehoused at the Ihungu Remand Home just outside of town. Most of these juveniles are charged with capital offenses, which are crimes that would carry with them the possibility of the death penalty if committed by adults.
We checked into the same Masindi Hotel where I had stayed in January of 2010 (and several times since then). We had dinner with one of two Legal Aid lawyers who will be representing the juveniles when the cases eventually are presented to the court, and with the probation officer who serves as the warden of the Ihungu Remand Home. Collectively, they delivered to us partial case files for eight of the twenty-five prisoners. Of these eight files, six are charged with aggravated defilement – sex with a girl under the age of fourteen – one is charged with murder, and one is charged with rape.
We divided ourselves into three teams. Each team has either one or two American lawyers, and three or four American law students. The two Ugandan lawyers will join us for some of the interviews we will conduct with the juvenile prisoners. Each of the three teams will also have one interpreter. One will be a member of the court staff, one will be my driver (Michael), and one will be a boy named Joseph. I first met Joseph on my first visit to the Ihungu Remand Home when he and his older brother Henry (with whom I am now quite close) were prisoners there. During our work back then, Joseph and Henry both served as interpreters for the other children. Joseph is now one of the top students in Senior 3 (equivalent to 10th grade in the United States) at The Restore Leadership Academy, which is Bob Goff’s school in Gulu. When I presented Joseph with the opportunity to return to Ihungu to assist those who find themselves in the same situation he was once in, he leapt at the chance.
As I write this, the students and lawyers are poring over the files in preparation for the interviews that will begin in earnest tomorrow morning. For most of the students, this is their first encounter with a real, live case where the freedom of the one they are helping hangs in the balance. We covet your prayers. More tomorrow evening.
For those who have been keeping up with the J-FASTER program in Kampala, things continue to go according to plan. Another few cases resolved at the end of last week via plea bargaining, and the lawyers on both sides are getting more comfortable with the whole notion. On Friday, the deal in one of the cases collapsed as the juvenile changed his mind (yet again) and decided not to plead guilty. The first witness of the entire session was called on Friday. The session resumes on Wednesday of this week.
On a personal level, Joline and the kids boarded a plane for Kenya this afternoon to meet up with the youth group from our home church in Malibu. This group is spending two weeks at Made in the Streets, which is a Christian organization that rescues Kenyan street children, loves them, and teaches them a trade. A few minutes ago, I received a text message letting me know that Joline and the kids arrived safely, though the youth group is still in transit. My plan is to join them a week later for their second week in Kenya.