When Desperation Trumps Innocence

Last week, we worked in three different prisons throughout Western Uganda: Katojo Prison in Fort Portal, Mbarara Main Prison, and Bushenyi Prison. Our team included 14 American law students, seven American lawyers, 13 Ugandan law students, and varying Ugandan lawyers to help further implement plea-bargaining in Uganda. For more on how plea-bargaining got started in Uganda with Pepperdine University’s help, see the new documentary REMAND by Revolution Pictures.  It’s at the stage now where the Judiciary is attempting to implement plea-bargaining in a deeper way to make it a successful program throughout the country. Judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and prisoners are all learning the concept and how it can be mutually beneficial for everyone involved.

Plea-bargaining is only for those who are willing to plead guilty. The Principal Judge of the High Court of Uganda (third in line in the entire Judiciary) has made it clear that innocent people should not plea-bargain, even if it would mean they would get out of prison sooner. You might be wondering how someone that is innocent would sit in prison longer than someone who actually committed a crime and has accepted a guilty plea, but in Uganda, it is entirely possible and actually quite common. You see, when people are arrested and taken to jail in Uganda, they aren’t often given bail. Laws about bail do exist in Uganda, but they are more theoretical than practical. The problem with bail is that most people here, if they are from a village upcountry, don’t have addresses and there is really no way to track them down and ensure they will show up for trial. So, the prisons don’t let them go. This period of time the prisoners spend waiting between their arrest and trial is called “remand.” This wouldn’t be the worst thing if prisoners’ constitutional right to a fast and speedy trial was enforced, but this is just not practical here right now. It’s not that the Ugandan Judiciary wants prisoners to wait in agony. They simply don’t have the resources to adjudicate all of the criminal cases awaiting trial. This has caused an immense case backlog, and the Judiciary continues to struggle to catch up. Some prisoners wait on remand for more than five years before they get a trial.

I met a fellow last week that has been on remand for more than four years, but he is completely innocent. It was on Friday of prison week. My team and I started preparing another case to discuss and negotiate a plea for the next inmate who had signed up. His case was an aggravated robbery charge, and the prosecution’s initial offer on the plea agreement was 30 years! I read through the file, and it was awfully gruesome. I quickly learned why the prosecution was so harsh. After going over his case, I was actually a bit nervous bringing the prisoner over, thinking that this must be a really bad guy. When we were finished preparing, we brought him over to interview with us and hear about his story. For many of our other cases, we would read the prisoner a summary of the case facts, they would agree and accept they were guilty, and we would move on to negotiations. However, this man came straight up to us and said in his local language, “Look, I’m innocent. I swear to Allah that I am completely innocent.” We were all a bit confused and looked around at one another, and continued to tell this man that if he is innocent, he needs to wait for his trial, because plea-bargaining is only for those who are guilty. He said, “I know and I understand what plea-bargaining is, but I need someone to listen to me. I’ve been sitting here on remand for more than four years, and no one ever takes me to trial. I don’t know what to do.” You could see the desperation in his eyes. We pressed further and dug into the facts of his case. It truly broke all of our hearts when he said he just needed someone to listen to his story because nobody else ever had, or if they did, they couldn’t do anything about it. After reading through his case file more thoroughly, our Ugandan advocate, Michael (who was fantastic!), realized that the prosecution’s evidence against this man was extremely weak. This man had a completely different alibi, and he immediately offered Michael three or four phone numbers for witnesses that could confirm where he was that night. The police got the wrong guy, and because of that, an innocent man has been sitting in prison for over four years.

We asked him more about why he wanted to come talk to us. He told us that every time they have had a session for trials recently, they were only accepting cases for plea-bargaining. I assume this is because Uganda is trying so hard to implement this new system. However, because of it, this man hasn’t gotten to go to trial. It made me sick to hear his story and see his desperation for anyone to help him. For a minute, we all wanted to let him just accept a plea so that at least he would have some certainty about when he would get out, but we knew we couldn’t allow him to do this. Thankfully, we told Professor Gash, who found out that he is on the list for the next High Court session to have his trial, and the session starts July 15, 2016. We rushed back to tell him that his trial was coming soon, and his face fell in his hands and he started tearing up. What was even better is that our Ugandan advocate (who is doing this work for free by the way) offered right on the spot to represent him at his trial! This was absolutely AMAZING, because he was not required in any way to do something like this for him. Although the man would otherwise receive a lawyer at some point, the lawyer may not advocate for him like Michael will. This story will hopefully have a happy ending. I hope more than anything that Michael is able to prove this man’s innocence and the judge will set him free in just a few weeks.

This was a tough case, and it is really difficult to grapple with the fact that an innocent man has been sitting in prison for several years waiting for the day he can try to prove his innocence at trial. He has been sitting there wondering if anybody would ever listen to him or help him, or if he would just rot away in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. His desperation was so deep that he was willing to plead guilty to an aggravated robbery charge that could have put him in prison for 30 years!! I’m thankful that his case came our way that day, and that he met a Ugandan advocate willing and able to help him. Not all cases like his will end this way though. I’m sure there are many more innocent people sitting in Ugandan prisons who are desperately waiting for their chance to prove their innocence, and they may not get that chance for several years.

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