Even so, 80 case files were still missing. All that was known about these cases was the brief prison record, which gave the prisoner’s name and approximate age, and the date and place where they were sentenced. Armed with this information, the Reprieve volunteers and Cornell students began the investigations required to prepare the defence briefs, assisted by paralegals –people with a broad knowledge of the law although lacking formal qualifications–. These paralegals played a key role in the project, because it was they who ensured smooth communications, cooperation and coordination with the prisons, the courts, the convicts themselves and the communities into which they might eventually be released. These were the people who really knew the customs, beliefs and needs of the population at large. They also provided the link between the foreigners and the locals, and they were the only ones able to guide the volunteers round the maze of dusty, unsignposted roads leading to the country’s villages. Only the main roads are signposted and paved in Malawi, and when the rains begin, driving becomes even more difficult. They also helped the prisoners understand the process on which they were about to embark, as well as explaining to the foreign lawyers and students the reasons for what was going on around them. They were, in the words of Alfred Munika, their director in the city of Lilongwe, the ‘lubricant’ of the judicial system. It was only thanks to them that the wheels of justice could turn at all.
The first step was to interview the undocumented prisoners again, and then to visit their villages and talk to their families, possible witnesses, traditional community leaders and, sometimes, to the families of victims, in order to obtain as much information as possible about the circumstances and possible mitigating factors of each crime. It was found that some prisoners were in all likelihood innocent of the crimes of which they had been convicted. Others were still minors when they committed the offence. In yet other cases, prisoners were found to be suffering from mental disabilities and illness, or to have suffered brain damage as a result of malaria and other maladies. The circumstances of the crimes often involved substantial provocation, including the case of one young man found guilty of murdering his step-father after the man had beaten his mother almost to death.
These paralegals played a key role in the project, because it was they who ensured smooth communications, cooperation and coordination with the prisons, the courts, the convicts themselves and the communities into which they might eventually be released.
Reprieve volunteer lawyer Katie Campbell and Joel, a Zomba-based law student interview Daniel Teputepu, who was condemned to death in 2001, to prepare his defence. Zomba prison, 2016.
All of this information was used to prepare countless witness statements, medical reports, educational and prison behaviour certificates and so on to be produced in court as evidence. It was a huge job. Merely finding out the age of a prisoner to establish whether he might have been underage when he committed his crime was a heroic task. There is no national system for the registration of births in Malawi and people commonly cannot say exactly when they were born. This had to be deduced by asking older relatives who the sitting President was when the prisoner was born, whether he was at school when the crime occurred, and other similar questions. Age could not be proved with 100% certainty, but credible pointers could certainly be found.
“We saw numerous cases of prisoners who must have been minors when they committed their crimes, so they should never have been sentenced to death under the Constitution of Malawi or under international law,” Sandra remarks. “But delays and the backlog of cases means that it takes at least five or six years for a case to come to trial. By this time, the child has become a man but nobody stops to think whether or not the accused was a minor when the crime was committed. Meanwhile, the prisoner is often ignorant of the importance of establishing his actual age and the effect it could have on his sentence. So the opportunity is lost and people are condemned to death merely because nobody realizes that they were minors when they were arrested.”
The results of the Kafantayeni Project have surpassed the expectations of even the most optimistic of those involved. Sandra never believed they could achieve such spectacular success.
Finally, the team spoke with the prison officials. Zomba prison is Malawi’s only maximum security facility, and it is where death row prisoners are incarcerated. The officer in charge of the institution in 2016, Major Manwell, is amiably polite and cooperative. All of his officers are aware of the Kafantayeni project and they are happy to provide information about convicts’ behaviour in prison, their educational attainments and cases of mental disability or disturbance. In such cases, the Project contacts the psychiatrists at San Juan de Dios Hospital in Mzuzu or the mental health unit at Zomba Hospital. Babcock also sent the US psychiatrists George Woods and Richard Dudley, both experts in the field of mental health in correctional institutions, to Malawi to look into the most serious or complicated cases, accompanied by the South African specialist Colleen Adams.
All of the information obtained is put together in a brief for use in court by the defence counsel, who would never have had time to compile the information alone.
The results of the Kafantayeni Project have surpassed the expectations of even the most optimistic of those involved. Sandra never believed they could achieve such spectacular success. The first hearings began in February 2015, and by May 2018, one year after the project ended, 154 of the 168 prisoners qualifying for judicial review under the Kafantayeni decision had been resentenced. The results speak for themselves: 126 convicts had been released, either at the end of a new, reduced prison term or immediately in the case of those whose sentences were commuted to a term that was shorter, sometimes much shorter, than the time they had already spent behind bars. Another 27 were nearing the end of their revised sentences. Only one reprieve involved commutation to life imprisonment.
Sadly, however, two of the remaining 14 prisoners died in prison, one before his case came up for retrial and the other before a decision was reached in proceedings. A further twelve men have yet to come before the court. These cases remain outstanding either because their first trial was held after the Kafantayeni decision, although the crime itself was committed beforehand, or because of procedural difficulties because the law allows the original sentence to be changed but not the verdict. The paradoxical result is that the case enters a legal limbo if the accused is found to be innocent, and this situation can be difficult to resolve.
Sandra Babcock meeting paralegals at the PASI’s offices in Lilongwe to organize reinsertion field trips to communities receiving recently liberated prisoners. 2016.