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FEATURE

Absence of jurors in murder trials: A case for criminal justice system in Sierra Leone

September 13, 2018

By Hassan Gbassay Koroma

Mohamed Lamin Kamara and Paul Korn have spent over five years in detention at the Pademba Road Correctional Centre. They were in 2012 charged to court for the offence of murder. The duo were accused to have murdered one Hannah Bockerie along Aberdeen Beach in Freetown.

After the conclusion of preliminary investigations at the Magistrate Court presided over then by Albert J.Moody, their indictment was sent to the High Court in August 2015 for trial. But the fate of these accused persons, whether they would be found guilty or not, is yet unknown. It is the view of many that the delay in the admission of justice to them is largely due to the persistent absence of jurors.

The 1965 Criminal Procedure Act provides for trial by jury in the High Court for offences including Murder, Treason and Robbery with Aggravation that are punishable by death or life imprisonment. Section 23 (1) of the Constitution stipulates that anyone charged with a criminal offence should be given a fair hearing within a reasonable time.

The legal maxim ‘Justice delayed is justice denied’ means that if legal redress is available for a party that has suffered some injury, but is not forthcoming in a timely fashion, it is effectively the same as having no redress at all.

This principle is the basis for the right to a speedy trial and similar rights which are meant to expedite the legal system, because it is unfair for the injured party to have to sustain the injury with little hope for resolution.

Over the years, many accused standing trail in the High Court of Sierra Leone for the offences of murder, robbery with aggravation and other capital offences that require trail by judge and jury have had their cases delayed.

The absence of jurors in murder trials in the country is becoming a common phenomenon in our judicial system.  Their seemingly absence in those trials is causing undue delay in the delivery of justice to hundreds of accused persons who are possibly languishing behind bars.

Many a times, judges have raised concern over the phenomenon and expressed their outright disgust because the burden is on them to deliver justice in those trials.

Justice John Bosco Alieu of the Freetown High Court had stated in an open court that the situation was getting worse every day and that it might be worst when the High Court Criminal Session resumes in a few weeks.

“The criminal justice will collapse if it continues this way.”

Lawyer Alberta Kargbo is State Prosecutor attached to the Sierra Leone Law Officers Department. She expressed concern that the persistent absence of jurors in murder trials poses serious challenges to their work as prosecutors.

“The action of jurors has prolonged murder trials, some for over five years in the High Court without any progress been made and sometimes because of the long delay, some factual witnesses that are named in the indictment will travel out of the country without testifying or sometimes die.”

Possibly making reference to the CPA, Kargbo noted that it is mandatory by law that accused persons standing trial for offences that attract death penalty should be tried by judge and twelve jurors.

Due to the persistent absence of jurors, many accused persons have either been let off the hook or left languishing in prison without justice.

Lawyer Alberta Kargbo recommended that the judiciary should be providing some incentives to the jurors as a means of encouraging them to take their work seriously.

“This would help the timely delivery of justice to accused persons especially those on trial for capital offences,” she said.

She further recommended that the number of jurors empanelled per case be reduced to a number that will make it easier for speedy trial.

For defense lawyers, their position is clear on the fact that the situation renders outright injustice to their clients.

Lawyer Cecelia Tucker is a defense counsel attached to the Sierra Leone Legal Aid Board.

She noted that the absence of jurors was creating great hardship for their clients, adding that most of the accused persons that are tried by judge and jury are being incarcerated without speedy trial.

Tucker underscored the need for the judiciary to be sensitising jurors that as a matter of must they should serve in that capacity once nominated by their respective ministries.

She also emphasised the need for  the judiciary to hang heads with ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) so as to ensure that whosoever they send as juror would be committed to serve diligently in that capacity .

Observations are that ninety percent of civil servants assigned to the judiciary by MDAs to serve as jurors are aged and that they often use poor health as an excuse for absenting themselves during court proceedings.

Some of the jurors interviewed by this medium expressed that, “My brother, what we are going through here is painful. We have lots of burning issues with the judiciary. They have not provided us with office space and sometimes we will have to sit on the floor outside the courtroom waiting to be called on. Toilet facility has not been provided for us. We always pay to use the public toilet,” they cried out.

The jurors had spoken to this medium on the condition of anonymity.

They further averred that some of them commute from as far as Waterloo and spend their own money to pay transport fares, adding that at the end of each sitting not even a bottle of water is provided to them.

The jurors expressed frustration that they sometimes go to court with the prosecution providing no witness to testify in court.

Moses Kamara is the Public Relations Officer of the Sierra Leone Judiciary. He was hired by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) through the Justice Sector Reform Project.

He noted that, “Trial by jury is a legal provision and must be done that way because the judiciary is subjected to the laws of Sierra Leone.”

He admitted that trial by judge and jury has over the years been challenging especially now that cases of murder and other heinous offences are on the increase.

Kamara noted that MDAs are not cooperating with the judiciary in sending people to serve as jurors, adding that they sometimes send people that are not in their good book, as a way of punishment.

He admitted that concerns raised by jurors are genuine, adding that they are working hard to look into their concerns.

“We have on the table of Parliament the new Criminal Procedure Act (CPA). If it is passed into law, it will help to address the many challenges the judiciary is facing. That proposed bill is also aiming to reduce the number of jurors from twelve to eight,” he said. He added that the new CPA will make it compulsory for MDAs to assign people to serve as jurors and provision to provide transport for jurors is also captured in the new CPA,” he said.

The review of the Criminal Procedure Act would come as a welcome move because the delay in the delivery of justice to accused persons languishing behind bars is a serious call for concern. Justice delayed is justice denied and this is a case for the country’s criminal justice system.