Right from the beginning of time, justice has been a thing of importance in society. Moses, the prophet of God, in the Book of Deuteronomy, proclaimed to the Israelites all that God had commanded concerning the people. He said: “Appoint Judges and Officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous. Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16: 18-20). Deuteronomy 17:8-13 instructs about law courts and accepting the decisions of the Judges, while 19:15-19 gives instructions about investigation, establishing evidence by the testimony of at least two witnesses, and the consequences of false testimony.
While the Bible gave judicial powers to the Priests and Judges, especially for cases that involved bloodshed, Section 6 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended in 2018) (the Constitution) vests judicial powers in the various courts to adjudicate on all matters, including murder, except those excluded by Section 6 (6)(c) of the Constitution. The powers given to Judges in the days of old and today, are different; while Judges had the power to investigate matters thoroughly and adjudicate upon them (Deuteronomy 19:18), the investigation of crime is now a function reserved for the Nigeria Police (see Section 214 of the Constitution and Section 4 of the Police Act 2020), and other authorities or bodies to whom the law donates such power to, not Judges.
Within the court system, there are several main actors who have their various roles to play. According to the Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers Adopted by the 8th UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders in 1990, Lawyers are mandated to assist their clients before the courts and tribunals, protect the rights of their clients and promote the cause of justice amongst other duties (see Articles 13 & 14). Lawyers are meant to give their clients advice, and in the courts, present their clients’ cases or defend them as “fairly and strongly as they can”. See R v Clewer 1953 Criminal Appeal Reports 37. Lawyers call witnesses, examine them, challenge the evidence of their opponents and prepare briefs. See R v Cain 1936 25 Criminal Appeal Reports 204.
A Judge, on the other hand, is an arbiter who adjudicates between disputing parties without showing an interest in the case, or bias in favour of any of the parties to the action. Bias by a Judge can constitute a denial of the constitutional guaranteed right to fair hearing provided by Section 36(1) of the Constitution, which in turn vitiates proceedings and renders them null and void. See the case of Rafiu Womiloju & 6 Ors v Fatai Ogisanyin Anibire & 4 Ors SC.211/2002. In Ex Parte Lloyd 1882 Mort. 70 at Page 72 the court stated that “the duty of a Judge is to sit and determine the issues raised by the Parties, not to conduct an investigation or examination on behalf of any of the parties….But, he is not a mere umpire. His object is to find out the truth, and do justice according to the law”. A Judge is certainly not expected to descend into the arena, like a litigant or counsel of one of the parties to litigation.
The Roles of the Various Actors in Late Sylvester Oromoni’s Case
Last week, a Report issued by a Director in the Lagos State Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP), made the rounds in respect of the very sad case of 12 year old Sylvester Oromoni, a student of Dowen College, Lagos, who died on November 30, 2021 under questionable circumstances. The cause of the injuries he sustained or what may have been responsible for his death, are disputed. Again, in such a case as this that involves a criminal element, there are other actors apart from the Judge, Counsel (Prosecutor and Defence) and Police, who also have their roles to play. You also have the Coroner, the Medical Examiner (Pathologist) and the Chief Coroner’s Office involved in the conduct of an inquest. A Coroner’s Inquest is a judicial public inquiry, held to determine the cause of death, especially when the death may be in unnatural or suspicious circumstances.
Sections 14 & 15 of the Coroners’ System Law of Lagos State 2007 (CSL) provides inter alia that, a report of death may be made to the Coroner’s Office when there’s reasonable cause to believe that the cause of a death is unknown, unnatural, suspicious, violent, sudden, unexpected or by the negligence of others; and the Coroner shall hold an inquest when he/she is informed of death of a deceased person lying in his/her Coroner District who has died in any of the aforementioned circumstances, amongst others. Section 20 of the CSL seems to permit Sylvester’s inquest to be conducted in Lagos even though he died in Delta State, since his corpse was brought to Lagos and was then lying within the Lagos Coroner’s District. By virtue of Section 26 of the CSL, the Coroner may direct a post-mortem examination, on the conclusion of which the Medical Examiner will issue a Report to the Coroner who requested for the autopsy and the Chief Coroner of the State. According to the Oxford Dictionary, an Autopsy (aka Post-Mortem or Necropsy), is “an examination to discover the cause of death or the extent of disease”. It is carried out by a Pathologist, that is, a Doctor who examines bodies to find out the cause of death (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)(See Section 54 CSL). In a case such as this, a forensic autopsy should have been ordered, as is the case when there may be a likelihood of a court trial. Additionally, being a child, Sylvester Oromoni’s autopsy should have involved at least two types of Pathologists – Forensic and Paediatric.
As is the norm in Nigeria where people do not seem to know what their responsibilities entail, nor do they follow laid down procedure, the role of the Coroner in Sylvester Oromoni’s inquest was usurped by the Director in the Directorate of Public Prosecutions who went ahead to be the Coroner/Judge and Jury, accepting the findings of the Autopsy Report without question, absolving all the suspects of allegations even before the Coroner’s Inquest which had been adjourned to January 15, 2022 has taken place. On the contrary, while an inquest is ongoing, it is only when the DPP is of the opinion that there are sufficient grounds to institute criminal proceedings against a suspect already in custody or arrested in connection with the death, that an inquest can be interrupted and stayed (Section 38 CSL).
Last Friday, the Lagos State Commissioner of Police also jumped the gun, and went ahead to give a detailed Press Conference in which he regurgitated the Report of the Director of the DPP, also absolving the suspects of any blame. It seems to me that the Director of the DPP and the Police gave a final conclusion, based on an incomplete process. A pertinent question to ask at this juncture then would be, what the essence of a Coroner’s Inquest is, if a final decision can be made, or in this case, has already been made without it? None. An autopsy forms part of a Coroner’s Inquest, it does not conclude it. It follows therefore that, even if the findings of the autopsy are upheld on the completion of the Coroner’s Inquest, it is only then that the kind of advice issued by the Director in the DPP in Sylvester’s case should be issued.
During the Inquest, the Coroner shall summon witnesses, take evidence on oath and even documents, and can even make an order for the arrest of a suspect during the inquest or on conclusion of it, for investigation by the appropriate authorities (Section. 39 CSL). On conclusion of the Inquest, the Coroner shall give a written verdict as to how and when the deceased met their death, and forward it to certain officials including the Divisional Police Officer (DPO) in the District which the Inquest was held (Section 41 CSL). Where the Coroner believes that an unknown person may be responsible for the death of a deceased, he shall state this fact and transmit the record of proceedings to the said DPO. Section 350 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Law of Lagos State 2015 provides that no person shall be committed to trial on a Coroner’s Inquisition. In simple terms, this means that on the conclusion of a Coroner’s Inquest, the death may be ruled natural thereby more or less resting the case (aside from the necessary administrative actions required to be completed on its conclusion), or an arrest may be ordered, or an order for further investigation by the Police which is expected to lead to the arrest of other unknown suspects.
Court of Public Opinion
As a Lawyer, I will never be a party to determining liability based on the judgement of the court of public opinion without proper evidence being taken in a court of competent jurisdiction or without the due process of the law being followed; and I will not join a crowd to shout ‘crucify him, crucify him’ if the rule of law has been ignored. I also will not join those who have decided to usurp the role of others to hand down a premature verdict which the law does not give them the right to give, not for now anyway, in this somewhat delicate matter.
In the case of late Sylvester Oromoni, the court of public opinion has already found the students alleged to have beaten him up and giving him a poisonous substance to ingest for refusing to join their group, guilty without allowing the law to take its course. Though Section 36(5) of the Constitution provides that suspects are innocent until they are proven guilty, certainly there are many unanswered questions. How is that, out of a school of hundreds of students, five names were singled out allegedly by the deceased? However, the Lagos Autopsy Report, seems to be in favour of death by natural causes; the decision of the public and that of the Lagos State Autopsy Report are poles apart, and underscores the necessity for waiting for the outcome of the Coroner’s Inquest which may confirm or refute the Lagos Autopsy Report, or lead to further investigation and tests. It is imperative that all actors in the legal and court process know their roles and play them properly, in order for justice to be served.
There is also the question of the duty of care which was owed to late Sylvester Oromoni by Dowen College, his Guardians and Parents. Why didn’t all of them seek proper medical care for him timeously? If Sylvester had an injured ankle which resulted in him limping and having to visit the school’s infirmary, surely, at the very least, the school could have been taken him for an X-ray to try to investigate the source of his pain and limp. The whole circumstances surrounding the duty of care or the neglect or failure to perform same, demands serious interrogation, in determining liability.
As far as I’m concerned, the Public, the DPP and the Nigeria Police have all jumped the gun, handing down verdicts based on which side of the divide that they happen to be, and not necessarily based on proper evidence and laid down procedure. Naturally, many are overwhelmed with emotion, because this little child did not deserve to be cut short in his prime like this.
Finally, the allegation of bullying, also that Dowen College has a cult or unlawful society within the school, is a grave one that cannot be ignored, and must not go without thorough investigation. A few years ago, we did a feature story on Secondary Schools in Delta State where cult groups were almost commonplace. To try to shut down all these matters arising with a hasty absolution, is unacceptable. Already, the premature move by the DPP and Police may have affected the perception of the integrity of the process, and is already making many doubt and cast aspersions on the outcome of the Coroner’s Inquest which has not even taken place, and is scheduled for Saturday.