Against ordinary human expectation, a young Francistown-based junior private lawyer, Mishingo Jeremia, of the law firm Jeremia Attorneys who recently secured an acquittal for death row inmate, Buang Makwati, is not over the moon after the Court of Appeal overturned his client’s death sentence.
Makwati, a self-proclaimed traditional healer, was last December sentenced to death by Francistown High Court judge, Justice Mpaphi Phumaphi, for the November 2007 murder of Kediapere Kelopang.
In an exclusive interview with Sunday Standard, a calm and collected Jeremia prefers to use selective language in expressing his feat that many of his peers can only dream about.
“After the pronouncement of the appeal judgment, I was not overly excited. I just felt relieved because this is an accused person who had always maintained his innocence. The accused has been vindicated in terms of his testimony. While this is a big achievement, as a lawyer I couldn’t be overly excited because we don’t practice law to win cases. The primary objective of a lawyer is to assist the court to arrive at a just decision. In that regard there was no cause for celebration although by ordinary standards this is a big achievement,” said Jeremia, with a wry smile, adding that he was humbled by the acquittal.
“I am humbled by the acquittal. It is not every day that death row inmates get acquitted,” said Jeremia calmly.
On how he felt when Justice Phumaphi pronounced the death penalty on Makwati, Jeremia said he was not.
“Having previously done numerous murder cases, the pronouncement of the death penalty did not come as a shock. The moment the trial judge found no extenuating circumstances, it became apparent that the next stage entailed the imposition of the death penalty on the accused. It was expected and did not come as a shock,” said Jeremia who nonetheless admitted that he had not communicated the impending sad news to his client before sentencing.
“As a lawyer, once the trial court finds no extenuating circumstances, you expect the imposition of the death penalty. It is, however, difficult to communicate such an eventuality to a client or accused person. You await the court to do that while mulling over the next stage. Anxiety mounts as you want the written judgment so that you can start preparing for the appeal as is the norm in a death penalty case,” said the lawyer.
Strangely enough, though admitting that he is not a retributionist, the young lawyer believes in the death penalty as a deterrent because in his view “a lot of murders are being averted through the retention of capital punishment in the country’s statutes”.
To buttress his view point that the death penalty is a deterrent, Jeremia said that is why most murderers commit suicide immediately after committing the heinous crime.
“Why do most murderers commit suicide? It is for fear that they stand to be executed upon conviction. Although there is no empirical evidence that murderers take their own lives in fear of the death penalty, it can be safely assumed that they do so in fear of being executed,” said Jeremia.
Whether or not he was emotionally devastated when Justice Phumaphi sentenced his client to death, Jeremia said that as a professional lawyer, one does not let personal emotions overwhelm his line of duty.
“You don’t allow yourself to be consumed by emotions as a lawyer. The moment you allow yourself to be consumed by emotion, you can easily get detracted. One does not practice law to win cases; You win some and lose some. That’s the name of the game. Even if you lose, you don’t have to suffer a nervous breakdown. Those are survival skills which a lawyer is trained to acquire at law school,” he said.
Jeremia added that in the Makwati case, he never sought assistance from senior counsel as he believed that it was a case that he could handle. Even on appeal, he didn’t instruct senior counsel although on Court of Appeal roll call there was confusion as to who between him and Duma Boko was to argue the matter as Makwati’s relatives had instructed the latter.
He said they both indicated that they had been instructed although Makwati cleared the mist by insisting on his (Jeremia’s) representation.
“I think Makwati’s relatives were nervous that I could not handle the case at appeal hence they decided to seek Boko’s assistance. I, however, believed in myself and itched to do the appeal. I did it and succeeded. That was the best part of the whole thing because justice has been manifestly done in this matter as my client had always maintained his innocence,” said the junior lawyer.
“My client told me that he had been pressurized by his relatives to seek Boko’s representation. He, however withstood the pressure and ultimately chose me to represent him on appeal,” he said happily.
Jeremia is also humbled by the reception he was given at both courts (trial court and appeals court). He praised Justice Phumaphi for allowing him the latitude to argue his client’s case without undue interference. The lawyer acknowledges that Justice Phumaphi is a soft-spoken judge who always maintains fair treatment for litigants and their lawyers.
“I think such a trait is good for our justice system and the country in general. All judges have to have good listening skills and we need judges of such calibreso that justice is attained,” he said.
On the hurdles he experienced during the course of Makwati’s trial, Jeremia said the biggest challenge was that a co-accused had turned an accomplice witness. He said he fortunately controverted and discredited the evidence of the accomplice witness who had testified that it was Makwati who had killed the deceased.
“I had to discredit the evidence that was given by the accomplice witness at the High Court and it was a hurdle because he was the primary witness,” he said.
Jeremia, who appeared for Mkawati on pro deo basis, said it is unfortunate that most senior lawyers are not prepared to do pro bono cases and junior counsel. “We need guidance from senior counsel with their extensive experience. That way we will be motivated to do the same in the future for those coming after us,” said Jeremia.
In conclusion, Jeremia lamented that pro deo cases are not properly organized as is the case with cases from the pioneered aid system.