By Abdulwahab Abdulah
Eighteen years ago, precisely,February 2, 1995, when Tony Atalaye, a 16-year-old boy was arrested by the police with five other teenagers and accused of murder of one Daniel Obi of 22b, Amaechi Lane, Layinka, Ajegunle, Lagos, little did they know that the alleged offence could earn them death sentence by hanging.
As minors, rather than being arraigned in juvenile court as required by law, they were charged before a Magistrate court and subsequently arraigned before the High Court on February 5, 1998.
Few years into their trial, they were convicted and sentenced by late Justice James Odunneye who found them guilty of one count of murder preferred against them.
Those sentenced to death by hanging alongside Atalaye were Anefok Ukpa,16, Amaike Doripolo, 16, Ikechukwu Nwogu, 17, and Williams Owodo, 17.
On February 2, 1995 at about 7.30pm, the deceased, Daniel Obi was allegedly murdered by the accused persons. The teenagers were subsequently arrested and taken to Ajegunle police station, where they were investigated and their statements taken by the police.
After initial intervention by their family the five boys were released on bail, few days latter they were rearrested by the police, and were latter charged with murder before the magistrate court which ordered that they be remanded in prison.
On February 28, 2002, exactly seven years after they were arrested, the prosecution closed its case after presenting four witnesses against the accused persons.
On its part, the defence counsel entered a no-case submission, urging the trial court to discharge and acquit the five accused persons. However, not impressed by the defence counsel’s argument, the trial judge overruled him, ordering the defence to open it.
The late Justice Odunneye in his ruling then said, “Ï therefore rule that the prosecution has made out a prima facie against all the accused persons. The no-case submission is therefore overruled and I call on each of the five accused persons to enter their defence.”
In its defence, counsel to the accused person raised some alibi in order to stave off punishment for his clients, however, the presiding Judge was not persuaded by their defence submissions. The trial Judge eventually found the five boys guilty as charged and sentenced them to die by hanging.
Justice Odunneye held, “I hold that there is a common purpose or common intention by all the accused persons. This will make the act of one accused be the act of the other as the offence committed is in furtherance of the prosecution of this unlawful common purpose….
“As to whether confessional statement by the accused can on its own ground a conviction the case of Adio Vs.The State which is to the effect that if the said statement is held to be voluntarily made it will ground a conviction….The other four accused (a) Willaim Owodo 1st accused (b) Ikechukwu Nwaogu 2nd accused, (c) Anefok Ukpa 3rd accused and (d) Amaka Doripolo, 5th accused are also guilty of the charge by section 8 of the Criminal Code. They held a common purpose to prosecute an unlawful act. I therefore sentence all the five accused persons to death by hanging. May the good Lord have their souls.”
Dissatisfied with the conviction and sentence passed on them, the Convicts filed a notice of appeal before the Court of Appeal, Lagos, predicated upon six grounds of appeal. In their appeal filed on September 27, 2011, they prayed the Appeal Court to determine whether the trial court was right in holding that the prosecution had proved the charge of murder against the appellant beyond reasonable doubt despite manifest lack of evidence.
Whether the trial court was right in sentencing the appellant to death on the purported confessional statement, challenged by the appellant as being involuntary, same having been extracted under torture and duress.
They also prayed the court to determine whether the trial court was right to have convicted the appellant and sentenced them to death by hanging despite their ages range from 15-16 years at the time of the alleged offence and their conviction thereby violating their right to life and dignity of human person under the constitution and other international charters to which Nigeria is signatory.”
In determination of the case, the three-man Justices-Amina Augie, Ibrahim Mohammed Musa Saulawa and Adam Jauro in their unanimous decision set aside the conviction and the death sentence imposed on the five of them and subsequently discharged and acquitted them.
One of the grounds that the appellate court hinged its decisions was that the lower court failed to corroborate the issue of confessional statement allegedly made by the appellants during the investigation of their case by the police.
In its opinion in determining issues one and two raised by the appellants, the appellate court held, “It is a trite fundamental doctrine, that for any confessional statement, so called, to be capable of admitting the guilt of an offence, it must be seen to be voluntary; not resulting from any form of inducement, threat or pressure….
“I think the trial court’s finding and relying on the purported confession of the co-accused persons to pin-down the Appellants is equally erroneous, to say least. Most regrettably, the trial court came to the conclusion that, “Other accused persons made statements corroborating the statement of the 4th accused.” despite the well established statutory provision under section 27(2) of the Evidence Act, as amended.”
In the lead judgment delivered by Justice Saulawa, the court held, “the whole essence of the concept of justice is predicated upon the equitable doctrine of fair hearing, which has been characterized by God’s benevolent dispensation of justice to mankind.
“Hence, in the light of the foregoing far reaching postulations, and having resolved all the five issues in favour of the Appellants, there is no gain saying the fact, that the present appeal is meritorious. Without any further hesitation, I hereby allow the appeal. Consequently, the conviction and sentence of the Appellants by the trial court, in charge No.ID/28C/96, are hereby quashed. Accordingly, the Appellants are hereby discharged and acquitted.”
In the concurrent judgment by Justice Amina Augie Court of Appeal stated, “It is settled that it is the duty of a trial court to consider the circumstances under which a confession is made and decide what weight to attach to it.
“The trial court must look for evidence to corroborate the confession, and the evidence must be independent and capable of implicating the accused in relation to the offence charged.
“In this case, the lower court failed to consider the need for corroborative evidence, and ought not to have convicted the Appellants on their confession, without more.”
Speaking on his conviction and detention, Tony Atalaye denied committing the crime, which he said informed the Court of Appeal to discharge and acquit him. He noted that he learnt so much about the reality of life while in detention. He however regretted that the large chunk of his youthful age has been wasted behind prison’s bars.
Atalaye said, “My experience behind the prison bars for over 17 years was horrendous, having wasted the most functional and youthful age of my life in prison, especially for the offence I did not commit.
Though, I have learnt a lesson, however, I don’t know what to do now, except the programme I embarked on while I was in prison, that is, studying at the Open University. “I am appealing to Nigerians and well meaning organisations to help in making me achieve something reasonable in life.”
Amaike Doripolo, said, “I was 16 years when I was arrested. I went to my aunt place in Ajegunle, but on my way back, I saw people running, but I did not run, thereafter, I was arrested by some policemen where I was taken to the police station and was beaten, to confess to an offence I did not commit.”
Asked about his experiences in Ikoyi prison, where he was detained, he said, “after I was convicted, I always feel that a day will come that I will be taken to the hangman noose. I was always felt agitated day in day out, until a lawyer, Mr Lanre Akinsola took up our case up at the Court of Appeal, where we were freed.
“As at I am talking to you, I have nothing to do. I am just waiting for God’s mercy to come down on me so that my life will not completely rust away, after wasting 18 years in prison.”
Another youth,Anefok Ukpa who was also set free, described the wheel of justice at the High Court as slow and unfair to them.
He noted,”When I knew, I may die, I was scared. However, I was saved by the Court of Appeal, Glory be to God. I have to thank the lawyer, Mr Lanre Akinsola, who eventually assisted in securing our release from prison. I want Nigerians, government agencies and institutions to come to our aid.” The two other freed convicts were not available for interview, as they were said to have travelled out of Lagos.