The ruthlessness of Liberia's warlords notwithstanding, no Liberian shies from blaming the mutual pogrom they executed on the chronic absence of the rule of law and justice. Exactly a decade since that pogrom ended, not all Liberians agree that the nation has acted faster and seriously enough, to restore these lacks. However, signs at the Temple of Justice on Capitol Hill in Monrovia suggest that the nation is on its marks, however leisurely. The Analyst, reports.
The Supreme Court of Liberia has reversed a lower court's ruling confirming a petit jury's guilty verdict against murder suspects Wilson Darpoh and Enoch Jasper and sentencing the former to death by hanging while consigning the latter to five years imprisonment.
In 2009, the Republic of Liberia accused suspects Jasper and Wilson, then paramount chief of Matuaken District in River Gee County, of abducting, murdering in cold blood, mutilating the body of Fula motorcyclist Abdulai Jalloh for ritual sacrifice on May 10, 2009, and abandoning his body on the Gbeapo Kanweaken-Fish Town Road.
Assigned 15th Judicial Circuit Court Judge for River Gee County Cllr. Charles K. Williams, who presided over the murder case in Fish Town in January 2010, agreed with a petite jury he constituted that indeed the duo is liable.
According to the ruling, main convict chief Wilson Darpoh will die by hanging and co-defendant Enoch Jasper will go to jail for five years.
But the defense's lead counsel, Cllr. J. D. Baryogar Junius, ran to the high court on procedural ground, thus staying further action by assigned judge of the 15th Judicial Circuit Court.
Now, the high court issued its reversal mandate on February 19, 2013, suggesting to legal observers and rights advocates that indeed the law does speak in Liberia, affirming an emerging era of recourse to the rule of law and an aura of justice in Liberia.
"[C]onvinced therefore that the verdict of guilty brought against the appellants by the petit jury as well as the judgment entered thereon by the trial judge confirming said verdict and convicting the appellants of murder was without the support of the law of the land, said Final Judgment of conviction is hereby reversed and set aside and the case ordered remanded for trial de novo, to take precedence over all other matters," the high court said in the opinion handed down during its October 2012 Term of Court.
High court judges who were present and apparently conceded the opinion included Acting Chief Justice Francis S. Korkpor, Sr., and justices Kabineh M. Ja'neh, Jamesetta H. Wolokollie, and Philip A. Z. Banks, III.
The justices said they took the decision after they examined the proceedings of the trial the lower court sent to the Supreme Court and weighed the legal arguments the prosecution and defense counsels made before them and, before then, before the judge of the Judicial Circuit Court.
During the Supreme Court hearing, incidentally, defense counsels Samuel K. Jacobs, Serena F. Garlawolu, and M. Wilkins Wright of the Ministry of Justice aligned against the defense' lone counsel.
The court said it discovered from these examinations that the judge of the 15th Judicial Circuit Court conducted the trial on the murder charge "entirely in grave violation of the appellants' constitutional rights to fair and impartial trial".
Even though the high court has successfully reversed the murder verdict, the accused have yet to gain their freedom, as the due process has yet to take its course and establish justice as demanded by the rule of law culture to which Liberians are unanimous postwar Liberia must subscribe.
It is in respect of this that the high court issued this assigning order. "The Clerk of this Court is ordered to send a mandate to the trial court ordering the judge presiding therein to resume jurisdiction over this case and give effect to this judgment. AND IT IS SO ORDERED."
Landmark ruling in the shadows of international watch
Even though many regard the River Gee murder case as "relatively low profile", its politicization and the subsequent lower court ruling imposing a death sentence, among other reasons, made it a high profile case.
The ritualistic overtone of the case, and the political status of individuals rumored to have been associated with the murder of the motorcyclist, sent fear down the spines of older Liberians that ritual murder with impunity was returning to Liberia. Many were therefore waiting to see the accused punished both to establish justice for the family of the victim and to serve as deterrent.
Observers say this fear probably prompted a group of University of Liberia students, who hailed from the county, to issue a statement on January 22, 2010 welcoming the 15th Judicial Circuit Court's "death by hanging" verdict.
"The ruling, according to the students, is not only a lesson to deter blood surviving individuals, it also 'an applause for the judicial system in the country. The River Gee County students expressed the strongest conviction that if such a judgment takes effect, citizens in the county would build confidence in the legal system," said one media report on the student's decision.
The fear of the return of ritual murder with impunity and the passion for justice as part of Liberia's democratic dispensation aside, the River Gee murder case got its landmark status from coming on the heels of the introduction in parliament of a capital punishment bill. The capital punishment bill itself came on the heels of Liberia subscribing to international treaties providing for the abolition of the death penalty.
It is not clear how Liberia would have executed the death by hanging verdict of the lower court, having signed, but not ratified, the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.
Even difficult to understand, observers say, is how Liberia expects to execute its capital punishment law in spite of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Activists say the designation "optional protocol" offers no guarantee of excuse for any non-cooperation with the international community.
On July 16, 2008, the Liberian Senate passed a bill introducing the death penalty for those responsible for armed-robbery, hijacking, and terrorism.
No sooner had the senate passed the bill than the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its member organization in Liberia, Liberia Watch for Human Rights (LWHR), branded it "blatant violation of the country's international commitments".
By the senate's signing of that bill, the FIDH and LWHR argued then, Liberia "[has violated its] commitment to 'take all necessary measures to abolish the death penalty within its jurisdiction' pursuant to its signature, in 2005, of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the abolition of the death penalty".
"This bill also contravenes to the provisions of the 1999 resolution adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) urging states to envisage a moratorium on death penalty and represents a great step back after the adoption, on December 18th 2007, by the General Assembly of the United Nations of a Resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty  , which Liberia did not voted against," the group had argued.
It was perhaps in view of Liberia's appending of its signature to the protocol, garnering international approbation for that, and yet toying with the idea of imposing capital punishment on violators of certain laws that caused the European Union, on October 10, 2012, to issue in Monrovia its opposition to "the use of capital punishment in all cases and circumstances".
The EU Delegation to Liberia issued the opposition on the occasion to mark the 10th Anniversary of the World/European Day against the Death Penalty.
Despite the passing of the controversial bill upholding death penalty in Liberia, the international community has not abandoned or deleted Liberia's name from the list of countries that agreed in principle to abolish death penalty.
As late as November 2012, the International Federation of Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (FIACAT) and Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT) Senegal held a training seminar on the death penalty in Dakar for the nine member organizations of its network active in West Africa. Liberia participated in the seminar, despite taking action to the contrary just four years earlier.
Delegates to the seminar reportedly drew up strategies for the abolition of the death penalty in Africa, the ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the adoption of the resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions. The United Nations General Assembly was due to vote on these strategies in December 2012.
Observers say what the Supreme Court has done by reverting the case to the lower court is to kick the can down the road in the hope of overturning the case.
What they say is important to contemplate, however, is what would happen if the lower court followed all due process, discovered overwhelming evidence for a guilty verdict, and condemned the convict in keeping with the laws of Liberia.
Would the nation pursue the death verdict then, in reverence to its laws, or flout the laws in reverence to the international protocol it had signed?