After spending 10 years in prison and 5 years on death row, the Court of Appeal in Lagos, today discharged and acquitted Sopuruchi Obed and Otobong Sunday Edet who were convicted and sentenced to death for armed robbery by the Lagos State high court on 29 August 2009. They were barely 17 years old when arrested on 30th September, 2004 on allegations by police at Igando police station that they were part of a group of young men seen by a police informant spending lavishly at a beer parlour, and overheard boasting of their unlawful escapades. No one testified of being robbed by any of them. On those allegations, they were arrested, charged and eventually convicted.
Following the appeal against their conviction and sentence filed in 2011 by LEDAP – Legal Defence & Assistance Project, a panel of Justices of the Court of Appeal, Lagos Division unanimously allowed their separate appeals and set aside their conviction and sentence. The court resolved 2 out of 3 issues raised for determination in the appeal in their favour. In particular, the court found that the evidence of the prosecution witnesses were mere hearsay and that the vital evidence required to prove the charges were not provided by the prosecution. Moreso, at the time of the incident, Mr. Obed and Mr. Otobong were under-aged persons who ought to have been taken to Juvenile Court rather than a high court. The justices of the court of appeal decried the high court for not making detailed inquiry into the ages of the appellants.
Under the Nigerian law, persons under the age of 17 years have diminished criminal responsibility and those under the age of 18 years must be treated as children and only tried at the Family or juvenile courts in accordance with the Child Rights Act or Laws. They should be sentenced to death.
Incidents of charging and trying juveniles in adult courts are rampant in Nigeria, and there is little or no hesitation with many trial courts sentencing them to death, despite provisions of the law prohibiting sentencing persons under the age of 18 years, insane persons or pregnant women to death.
In a 2008 joint report by LEDAP and Amnesty International titled ‘Nigeria: Waiting for the hangman” available on www.amnesty.org/nigeria/AFR44/020/2008 it was reported that nearly 46 of the 1200 or so death row prisoners in the country’s 10 maximum security prisons could be children at the time the alleged offences were committed and at the time of their convictions. The situation remains the same today. Most of the condemned juveniles have been convicted based on questionable confessional statements obtained by the police upon their arrests.
Commenting on the judgment today, and deprecating the continued use of death penalty in the country with its high risk of mistaken convictions, Mr. Chino Edmund Obiagwu, the lawyer to Mr. Obed and Mr. Otobong, said that “this case presents another opportunity for deep soul-searching by our criminal justice leaders and legislators on continued imposition of death sentences in the country with such imperfect criminal justice system, which range from poor police investigation to inefficient prosecution and unduly protracted trial processes. Nearly 7 out of every 10 death penalty appeals that LEDAP has handled in the last two years have resulted in the acquittal of the appellants, suggesting a very high rate of wrongful capital convictions’.
LEDAP uses this medium to call on the Nigerian government to reconsider its stand on the use of capital punishment by abolishing the death penalty and replacing same with life imprisonment or other humane alternatives.
Adaobi Egboka (Mrs.)
Executive programme Manager – LEDAP