Post written by Abbey Hayes
Through the Center, I was given the opportunity to travel to Mbarara, Uganda and work alongside Pepperdine Law in their bi-annual Prison Project.
The Prison Project is a program for 2Ls and 3Ls to partner alongside American attorneys, Ugandan attorneys, and Ugandan law students to establish plea-bargaining in Uganda.
The reality of Uganda’s legal system:
- No public defenders;
- No plea-bargaining (before the Prison Project);
- Thousands of inmates on remand for 5+ years (which means they are not convicted, but sitting in prison awaiting trial);
- The prisons are extremely overcrowded. Universal standards allow Mbarara to hold 300 inmates. Mbarara holds over 2,400 inmates.
In one week, our team went into Mbarara Prison and worked on over 380 cases, plea-bargaining 250 of them. This means that over 380 prisoners saw a lawyer for the first time since arriving in prison and 250 can begin serving their sentence. I worked alongside Samuel, a law student from Uganda Christian University.
Together, we acted as the liaison between our client and the DPP (Department of Public Prosecution) and negotiated sentences for inmates and got them off of remand and to begin serving their time. Sometimes remand exceeds required sentence, if that is the case, the inmate will get to leave prison the day the agreement is signed.
Together, Samuel and finished over 20 capital cases (rape, child rape, armed robbery, and murder). It was the most exhilarating and terrifying experience to formulate your plea-bargain strategy based off of a file filled with unorganized witness statements, thumbprints instead of signatures, and drawings instead of photographs.
After having an idea of the facts and the prosecutions offer, we would shout out a name into the sea of hundreds of yellow remand outfits and watch our client walk towards us—no hand cuffs, no guard escorting him, no security cameras, just our client sitting next to us. We would explain to him the reality of the situation and let him tell his side of the story. After having a full grasp on the case and with the consent of our client, we would walk over to the prosecutor and negotiate a plea deal.
This process was typical for the majority of my cases; however, I want to highlight two cases that illustrate God’s justice.
First, the Lord is just without any of my actions.
When signing up for this program, my biggest fear was advocating for an inmate that goes back to society and reoffends. With most of my clients, I saw their remorse and could rationalize why they committed the crime. But for one who brutally murdered his two-year-old daughter, I was concerned. The prosecution had offered him 25 years, and I knew I could get it down to 23—knowing it was my job to zealously advocate for my client. Twenty-five years might seem like a lot, but it is nothing compared the maximum statutory punishment for murder: death. I presented him with the offer and made it known that there were hundreds of pages of evidence against him that would be presented if he went to trial, advising him that this offer was a once in a lifetime opportunity. He looked at me, shook his head and said, “I can only do five.” I attempted to hide my disbelief and said, “Sir, you have confessed to brutally murdering your two-year-old daughter, if you don’t accept this offer, I can almost assure you that you will spend your life here.” Without reflection he looked at me and said, “Five.” Obviously, the prosecutor rejected five and he did not enter to a plea.
I sat back after that conversation and reflected on Isaiah 61:8a, “For I the Lord love justice.” This verse gave me deep reassurance in the Lord’s justice. I had a duty as a lawyer to advise my client to take a generous plea for an unimaginable crime, but the inmate’s heart was so hardened that he did not take the offer. Now, he will likely spend the rest of his life in prison because he did not take the plea, which I believe is a just punishment for the crime he committed. God is just, and it is extremely comforting to know that my job as a defense lawyer poses no threat to his justice.
Second, the Lord is just and can use my skills as a lawyer to bring his justice to Earth.
On the first day, I got a case about a nineteen-year-old-boy accused of rape. Although I had many of these cases, something did not seem quite right. I talked to my client, who repeatedly asserted his innocence—which is typical of most inmates—but this time, I believed him. I advised him to wait for trial and not go forward with a plea. He went back to the sea of yellow jumpsuits, and I moved on to the next file. That night, I could not stop thinking about his case. I advised him to wait for trial, which I knew could take 5+ years and he likely would not have a lawyer or be appointed one minutes before his trial—therefore, he could easily be convicted even though he is innocent.
The next morning, I reread every inch of case file and strategized on how to get the case dismissed. Me—a 2L that is only halfway through criminal law—was preparing to file a dismissal. I went to the head prosecutor and presented my case. He listened, did not respond, and began to read through the file. I anxiously awaited as he combed through each page and said, “You’re right. There is not probable cause. Please write up a dismissal.”
I could not contain my excitement! My client was going home this week as a free man. What an incredible experience and learning opportunity to have my first case dismissed against my client be in Mbarara, Uganda. Wow!
These two stories are two of many that show God’s justice revealed during my time in Uganda. I am forever impacted by this experience and so thankful for the Center, which made it possible for me to go. The Lord is just, and whether you are in a court room in America or an overcrowded prison in Uganda, we serve a sovereign God that will bring justice to the Earth. How sweet it is that I got to witness that truth in Uganda.
This post was written by a Center for Global Justice Law Clerk. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of Regent University, Regent Law School, or the Center for Global Justice.