Mitigation Workshop – Luzira Women’s Prison
By Barrie Sander
4 January 2010
In late December 2009, I conducted a mitigation workshop for the 29 prisoners on death row at Luzira Women’s Prison. Since most of the women prisoners do not speak English, I was assisted by one of them, Ms Susan Kigula, who provided a translation. It was great to finally meet Ms Kigula - her name is now infamous with the landmark Ugandan Supreme Court judgement, Susan Kigula & 417 others v. Attorney General, rendered in January 2009. In that case, the Ugandan Supreme Court held that the imposition of a mandatory death penalty was not in conformity with the Ugandan Constitution. Prior to this ruling a judge had no discretion as to which sentence to render when individuals were convicted of certain crimes (murder, rape, aggravated robbery, and treason); in such circumstances, a judge had to impose the death sentence. In light of the January 2009 ruling, all prisoners who had previously been sentenced to death mandatorily, have had their cases returned to the High Court for a fresh sentencing trial where they can put forward factors for the judge to consider to mitigate the gravity of their sentence; the aim is to offer the prisoners a fair hearing at which they can try to reduce their sentences from death to life imprisonment or some other lesser sentence.
In order to effectively mitigate their sentence, it is important that the prisoners paint a picture for the judge which shows who they are, what they have done inside and outside prison, and how they have changed. The aim is to transform the prisoner’s image from being merely a name in the judge’s file into a human being with rights who has a purpose in life. The factors that can be raised to mitigate a prisoner’s sentence can broadly be divided into three themes:
- Character: A prisoner can try to indicate to the judge that he is of good character. In this regard, several questions should be considered: has the prisoner taken any educational courses whilst at prison? Is the prisoner a family man? Does the prisoner belong to a religious community? Did the prisoner have a role in his old community back home?
- Health: A prisoner can indicate how prison life has affected both her physical and mental health.
- Capacity for Reform: A prisoner can try to indicate how the prison experience has reformed her. For instance, does the prisoner show remorse for her crime? Has the prisoner tried to reconcile with the victim’s family? Was the crime planned or impulsive and out of character? What activities has the prisoner undertaken whilst at prison (e.g. courses, skills, library, religion, sports etc.)?
During the workshop itself I explained how the mitigation process works, outlined examples of mitigating factors and tackled any questions the prisoners wished to raise. The workshop was a success; the prisoners were extremely grateful for the talk and asked many relevant questions.
It is important to empower the prisoners so that: (i) they can begin building up information about themselves that can be used by their advocates in their trial; and (ii) they can put pressure on their advocates to push on with various aspects of their case. I just hope that the Ugandan criminal justice system, with all its faults in terms of lack of organisation, lack of/poor representation, and long delays, can function effectively enough to ensure that these mitigation hearings offer the prisoners in question the fair sentencing trials they deserve.