The role of justice is to not only ensure that the guilty pay for their crimes, but to also ensure that the innocent is not wrongly punished. The scales are supposedly perfectly balanced, and manned by impartiality personified. In Nigeria, however, the judicial scales are obviously crooked, and manned by doyens of crookery. An American, Jack McCullough is presently celebrating his freedom, while many Nigerian McCulloughs continue to languish in decrepit jails for crimes they did not commit.
In December 1957, a 7-year-old girl, Maria Ridulph was kidnapped, and later discovered dead. The Illinois Police and the FBI investigated the kidnap-murder, and questioned Jack McCullough as one of many possible suspects. He presented an alibi, which the investigators believed—that he was 40 miles away at the time of the girl’s disappearance, and therefore could not have been the kidnaper. With no viable suspect to charge, the investigation went cold.
The cold case got thawed in 2008 after the Illinois State Police received a tip via email from McCullough’s half-sister, who claimed that 14 years earlier, her dying mother informed her that he was the kidnapper. The half-century old case was reopened; McCullough was arrested in 2011, and convicted in an accelerated case where the judge ignored some documents that asserted McCullough’s innocence.
Fast forward to 2016. Illinois’ current State Attorney just proved that the trial judge erred in convicting McCullough when no physical evidence pinned him to the crime. Using AT&T’s telephone records for December 1957, he agreed with McCullough’s alibi that he was making a phone call to his house at the time the crime was estimated to have occurred. McCullough is now a free man, as a fresh trial has been ordered.
Let’s now come back to Nigeria. There are three things that interest me about the McCullough case. First, is the will to catch crime perpetuators regardless of the elapsed time. The police were willing to reopen a case after fifty years. Obviously, the original investigators must have retired by 2008, some would have even died. Yet, knowing the importance of closure for grieving families, they were willing to reopen the case. They were willing to arrest a seventy-plus old man for a crime committed half a century ago. How many of Nigeria’s usually law-snubbing policemen would agree to put cuffs on an old man? Here, pro-cultural respect trumps any considerations of justice.
Secondly, the police and the justice department kept case files for over fifty years. If you think this is unimpressive, walk into Nigerian police stations and observe their filing systems. The state’s attorney was able to subpoena telephone records for 1957. That means that AT&T keeps records for as long as they can exist. Do we treat records with such sanctity in Nigeria? If we did, Nigerians would not be lovers of age modification in any direction. Documents are forged without fear because the average Nigerian knows that the forgery may not be easily discovered. It’s either records would have been destroyed, or investigators would lack motivation to go back in time.
Finally, I am impressed by the state attorney’s decision to review a case prosecuted by his own department. If he chose not to, or did a shabby job by turning a blind eye to evidence, McCullough would still be in prison. How many Nigerians are in prison for crimes they did not, could not have committed? Here, people are just arrested and thrown in jail, and there is hardly any mechanism to find and free the innocent. That is why the NBA’s current president, in a recently aired NTA interview, claimed that over 80% of Nigeria’s prisoners are awaiting trial. Even among those already convicted, if the legal processes that led to their convictions are critically examined, some may be victims of a crooked system where evidence is planted or hidden depending on a prosecutor’s intention. Some of those in prison also have poor legal representation. If they had the resources to hire good lawyers, like those with ninety lawyers, and the resources to tweak the judicial system, they would easily be at home sipping iced water with two straws.
In Nigeria, McCullough could easily be John, Emeka, Ayo, Longtang, or anything Nigerian. If some sectors in Nigeria require sweeping, the judicial sector needs sweeping, mopping, demolition and rebuilding according to the tenets of justice. We need to get our McCulloughs out of jail.
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