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Monday, September 12, 2011

Mchinji Homicide Trials

Last week I paid a visit to Mchinji in order to assist with a number of murder trials that were set to run for the week. Mchinji is a district in Malawi, about an hour and a half from Lilongwe, for those of you who are into such things it is the district in which Madonna adopted her two children.  

As we had only gotten to view the last trial from the point where the Defence opened their case I was interested to see the whole process from start to finish. The trials were held in the Mchinji Magistrates court sitting as the High Court in the court room photographed below.  I have taken the photo from outside the court as the two side walls are almost fully open to the public and as soon as the cases started we had quite a large crowd leaning in order the windows to try and get a look, in addition to the courtroom being packed out. The vast majority of the spectators being young men.  In was told the court was so packed as the crimes were alleged to have been committed in this area and so many of the persons present would have known the deceased and the accused personally. Again it was positive to see that it was the lawyers and the judge who had to travel from Lilongwe rather than the people from the area in which the crime was alleged to have been committed, given the cost of traveling that distance for someone with a farmers income.

On the morning in question there were 5 cases listed for hearing, generally all would be expected to have been run and heard by the end of the week. The High Court judge called all lawyers in on the morning to their chambers and asked what the delay was. It was about 9.30am at this stage and I wondered if there were any Irish High Court justices looking to have cases heard so early. The prosecuting lawyer explained that a number of the accused had to be committed to the high court (in a process similar to arraignment) and this what was holding up the process. The Court noted that an accused should be committed 21 days before their hearing as this rule was for the accuseds benefit and was there to protect them. This was a surprising intervention on behalf of the court as many of the accused at the previous murder trials had been committed on the day itself so it was heartening to see the judge query why it was being done so late and to push for the defendants rights. However there would be no real benefit to the defendants in adjourning the trial as many of them would still be held in custody and some had brought witnesses who had to walk/travel a long distance in order to be present at the case. 

Three defendants were called at the start of the list and in turn the defendants were read their rights and asked if their language was Chicewa and then they entered a plea of not guilty. The Prosecutor then made an application in which he noted that he had gone through the evidence available against the accused in the cases and found it be only circumstantial in nature and that the evidence was so weak that it could not sustain a conviction on such circumstantial evidence. Based on this the State applied for the case to be discontinued under s.77 1 (a) of the CPEC and discontinued the case against the accused noting that the state had up to 6 months to retry them from that date if further evidence arose. I was surprised to find no reaction from any of the accused to this news. This process was repeated for the second set of defendants  in which the state stated that a:
...perusal of the file shows there is no evidence to link any of the accused to the death of the accused. The only evidence that could link them is that on the same day the suspects drank beer in the same place as the deceased...
The same application was made and the case discontinued. This was a case-file I had gone through in the office the week before in preparation and the police office prosecuting the case had written on the case summary that the accused were not linked in anyway to the case and were charged as the relatives of the deceased had insisted that they were troublesome. These men has been held in custody in prison for 7 months without bring granted bail.

This process  was done for one final case with one defendant who was not in court at the time as he had arrived a number of hours earlier with a letter from the prosecution stating his case had been discontinued 5 months ago. The court held as his case had already been discontinued and as such would make no order. This defendant had been granted police bail.

One further case ended with a plea of Manslaughter after a plea bargin between the prosecution and defendant before court and after a plea in mitigation was made the Defendant received a ten year sentence.

This left just one case to try for Murder out of a potential 5, 3 of which could have been dispensed with almost immediately if the case file had been examined in advance of the trials. This will be an area in which Carolann, our lawyer who will be based in the prosecutors office, will be working on and could be an effective way of cutting costs for the state and reducing the numbers of people sitting in prison awaiting a trial which could never result in a conviction due to a lack of evidence.

I will discuss the full murder trial process for the case that ran in a following post.

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