STAND TO END RAPE’S REVIEW OF THE SUPREME COURT DECISION IN ONWUTA v. STATE OF LAGOS
The Supreme Court in a decision delivered on Friday, 8th April 2022, upheld the conviction of a man sentenced to 25 years imprisonment for the defilement of a 16 months old girl-child, based on oral evidence and medical evidence.
Where there is no direct eyewitness evidence when the rape was committed, the prosecution could rely on it to prove its case by way of circumstantial evidence. This would be sufficient enough to secure the conviction of the accused. However, this type of evidence must be direct and compelling enough to draw a rational conclusion that the offence was committed by the accused.
The Survivor at the time of the rape was a year and four months old girl, who was taken by her mother to the room of Maduabuchi Onwuta, who happens to be the survivor’s maternal Uncle and left in his care, while the Survivor’s mother went for a bath.
After the mother’s bath, she was approached by her daughter who showed that her pants were stained with blood. The Survivor’s mother immediately took her daughter to a health centre where it was confirmed that her daughter had been raped. She later made a report to the Police, and this led to the arrest of Mr. Onwuta. She verified that it was only her, the child and Mr. Onwuta in the house, stating that only Mr. Onwuta could have defiled her daughter. The Mother, the Medical Doctor who examined the Survivor within 48 hours after the rape and the Police Officers testified in Court.
The trial judge found Maduabuchi Onwuta guilty of the one count charge of defilement contrary to section 137 of the Criminal Code Ch 17 Vol 3 Laws of Lagos State. The accused was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment.
Dissatisfied with the judgement of the trial judge, Onwuta appealed to the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal affirmed the decision of the trial judge. Still dissatisfied, Onwuta, further appealed to the Supreme Court, which is the highest and final Court in Nigeria, the decision of which cannot be appealed against.
- Whether the Court of Appeal was right in upholding the judgement of the trial court, without making a pronouncement on the failure of the investigating Police Officer, to investigate the Accused’s defence that the crime had been committed by someone else the previous day while the child was crying uncomfortably at a neighbour’s house.
- Whether the Court of Appeal was right in holding that the contradictions of the prosecution witnesses were not fundamental enough to vitiate the conviction and sentence.
- Whether the Court of Appeal was right in upholding that the Prosecution witnesses’ were not confronted with the contradictions made to the Police.
SUMMARY OF DECISION:
Honourable Justice Mary Ukaego Peter Odili, delivering the leading judgement was quick to state that it was trite law for any Court to establish the guilt of the accused, the Prosecution may rely on any of the three ways:
- Confessional Statement of the defendant.
- Direct eyewitness account of a witness or witnesses.
- Circumstantial evidence.
It was further stated that until any of the ways has been established, the accused will be seen as innocent until proven guilty. It is the duty of the prosecution to establish the charge against the accused beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Honourable Justice referred to the decision of Rhodes- Vivour JSC, in the case of Boniface v. The State,(2015) 7NWLR (pt. 1458) 237 at 284 – 285, where the element of the offence of defilement was examined. It was stated that section 218 of the Criminal code of Lagos State says that for the establishment of defilement of a child under 11 years old, the prosecution must prove that the Accused had sex with the child. It must also be proved that penetration into the vagina was caused. The evidence of the child must be corroborated. It was also established that the offence of defilement is the same as rape and that it is immaterial whether the child consented or not. This is because the law does not consider a child to be mentally capable of consenting to sex.
The Honourable Justice claimed that the elements of the offence were established by oral evidence and the medical report. The medical report had established that semen was found in the child’s ruptured vagina. The result of the medical report was also supported by the information of findings and history supplied by the survivor’s mother.
The Honourable Judge stated that it was trite law to act on a piece of evidence which was not challenged or converted, and relied on the cases of OFORLETE v. THE STATE,(2000) SCNJ 162 at 179, MAGAJI v. NIGERIA ARMY( 2008) 8 NWLR PART 1089 p. 338.
The Accused had tried to establish a plea of alibi. This was because the child was heard crying uncomfortably from the neighbour’s house, across the street a day before. He later admitted to not being home the day before. The Accused also admitted under cross-examination, that he was the only person in the room when the child was brought to him, by the mother.
The Apex court also stated that the Accused’s defence of alibi was illogical and that the mother would have noticed the previous day, when there was an uncomfortable cry from the child from a neighbour’s house, across the street. The mother would have noticed that there was something wrong with the child and not taken her to the Accused’s room. The court stated that whether the child cried or not was material, what was material was that there was penetration which was proven beyond a reasonable doubt based on a medical report tendered by a medical doctor.
The Apex court relied on the case of Omoregie v. The State, ( 2018) 2 NWLR (pt. 1804) 505, that the fact is that the child was alone with the Accused which would have been given enough time to commit the offence. This makes it conclusive and compelling circumstantial evidence. It is on the onus of the Accused, to explain his whereabouts and how the child was defiled.
The Honourable Justice at the apex court stressed that Circumstantial evidence could be much stronger than direct evidence. It only requires that facts have to be established.
The Learned Counsel of the Accused, also complained about the contradictions of the prosecution witnesses’ statements to the Police. The Apex Court held that the contradictions did not remove the Accused from the scene of the crime. The contradictions would have affected the Prosecution’s case if it was substantial and the root of the matter. The Honourable Justice said that what matters is that the witnesses are in agreement with what event took place regardless of the different interpretations. The Apex court relied on this position based on cases of Ifedayo v.the State ( 2018) LPELR – 45374(SC), Kalu v. State ( 1998) 4 NWLR (Pt. 90)503 SC, Ochemaje v. State (2008) 15 NWLR ( PT. 1109) 57.
The Honourable Justice on concluding her leading judgement stated that the sentence was too mild for such a grievous offence, but had no power to interfere with the sentence. The Apex court held after deliberations on supporting the lead judgement, dismissed the Accused’s case to have no merit.
The essential nature of medical evidence in rape cases was reiterated in this case. Ensuring that a rape kit is provided for the Survivor and getting a medical report tendered in court by a medical doctor will strengthen the case of the prosecution.
Her Lordship, Mary Odili JSC expressed displeasure at the ‘’mild’’ punishment of 25 years imprisonment compared to the vile crime of defilement. However, her Lordship, rather than reviewing the sentence accordingly, stated that she had no power to interfere with the sentencing. With the greatest respect to the Justices of the Supreme Court, we disagree with that line of reasoning. Sentencing is an exercise of discretion by a Judge and may be interfered with if such discretion is not properly exercised. In our view, since Section 137 of the Criminal Law of Lagos State clearly provides for life imprisonment as punishment for the offence charged, the same ought to have been meted out by the trial Court and upon its failure to do so, either the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court should have reviewed the sentence accordingly.
Where there is no direct evidence or confessional statement of the defendant, circumstantial evidence is also another vital way to get a conviction. However, this type of evidence must have compelling and conclusive facts to point towards the accused, to be the only culprit.