The Court of Appeal has overturned the conviction and sentence handed to Abdalla Ssozi, the former head teacher of Back to God Primary School for aggravated defilement.
Ssozi was convicted on May 28, 2014, on four counts of aggravated defilement and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment on each of the four cases although the sentences were to run concurrently. In 2012, Ssozi was arrested from Lutti village in Kiboga district for allegedly defiling four pupils in his school aged 8, 9, 12, and 14 years. The victims’ names were never disclosed because they were minors. According to the court records, in August 2011, Ssozi called one of the victims to his home to cook for him.
However, after eating, he allegedly asked the girl if she wanted to be clever, to which she responded in the affirmative. The records show that he then asked her to remove her clothes, then smeared her whole body with jelly before having sexual intercourse with her. The charge sheet also shows that between May and August 2012, Ssozi called the other three victims at his home and asked them whether they would also want to be clever to which they responded in the positive and had sex with them.
None of the victims reported the matter until September 4, 2012, when he wanted to repeat his actions to one of the victims who refused to comply and instead informed his father who reported the matter to the area Local Council leading to Ssozi’s arrest. After the completion of the investigations, he was presented before the High court judge Wilson Musaalu Musene in a 2013 criminal session who convicted him on his own plea of guilty and sentenced him to 20 years imprisonment.
He, however, appealed his conviction and sentence in 2014 on one ground that he was wrongly convicted without properly taking a plea on the indictment, which caused him a serious miscarriage of justice. He asked the court to overturn both the conviction and sentence and set him free.
In the alternative, Ssozi asked the court to order a retrial in the High court in order to meet the ends of justice. During the hearing of his application, Ssozi’s lawyer Richard Bwiruka told the court that on all four counts, the indictment was read to the appellant and he admitted having sexual intercourse with the victims.
That the prosecutor informed court that the facts were as stated in the plea bargain agreement and the court read out and explained the facts to the appellant but there was no response from him to confirm whether the facts were true or not. However, the court went ahead to convict him, which he said was against established legal edicts.
Bwiruka added that it was wrong for the trial judge to record that the facts in the plea bargain agreement were read and explained to the appellant and proceeded to convict him on all counts without giving him the opportunity to reply.
In their response, state attorneys; Joseph Kyomuhendo and Joel Akatukunda Kakuru opposed the appeal, arguing that the case arose out of a plea bargain agreement made between the prosecution, the appellant, and defense counsel in which Ssozi freely agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of 20 years imprisonment.
They added that the fact that Ssozi was not given a chance to say something about the facts should be overlooked in favour of the wider cause of substantive justice, especially because he signed a plea bargain agreement from which the facts were read and explained to him.
But in their ruling, the Court of Appeal justices; Richard Buteera, Irene Mulyagonja, and Eva Luswata said the court erred in convicting and sentencing Ssozi on his own plea of guilty without first reading to him properly the charges as the law requires.
“It has not been disputed by counsel for the respondent that upon reading the summary of the facts to the appellant, the appellant was not afforded an opportunity to make a response to them. The purpose of making such a response is to ascertain that the accused person does not deny the facts or seek to explain them in which case the plea of guilty would become equivocal and, therefore, necessitate that it is changed to a plea of not guilty. Clearly, the appellant did not respond to the summary of the facts. Given that an accused person can change their plea at any point of the trial, even at the time of sentencing is particularly important that a trial court takes great care before accepting and relying on a plea of guilty to convict. It does not matter that the trial proceeded on a plea bargain agreement,” the judge held in their ruling.
They added that the failure of the trial judge to give Ssozi an opportunity to respond to the summary of the facts that were read from the plea bargain agreement left some doubt as to the finality of the plea of guilty upon which the judge convicted him.
“In the end result, we find that the failure to have the appellant respond to the summary of the facts that were read to him rendered the plea of guilty equivocal. For the trial court to base its decision on such a plea to convict the appellant was wrong, it occasioned a miscarriage of justice. We accordingly hereby quash the conviction and set aside the sentence,” the judges ruled.
However, although they observed that the ordinary course of action would have been to send the file back to the High court for the retrial, they considered the 10 years that Ssozi has spent in prison following his arrest in September 2012 when he was only 26 years old and the fact that the victims are now aged 18, 19, 22 and 24 years respectively, ordering retrial might be problematic.
“To order a retrial would require the disruption of their adult lives. There would be difficulties in the retrial process with tracing witnesses whose interest to testify would not be predictable. The inevitable delays in the retrial will be prejudicial and may not be in the interest of justice. In the circumstances, since the appellant did not deny the charges that were preferred against him and since the error occasioned during plea-taking was not of his own making, we find that the period of 10 years that he has so far spent in prison is sufficient to meet the ends of justice. He is, therefore, accordingly set free unless he is held on any other charges,” the justices ruled.
Source: The Observer