In Botswana few defence lawyers have succeeded in freeing clients on death row. Those who succeeded to save them to do so at least only once. But a Francistown-based attorney, Mishingo Jeremia has achieved a major feat by becoming the first attorney to free his second death row client. The Monitor staffer LEBOGANG MOSIKARE spoke to Jeremia in a wide-ranging interview
FRANCISTOWN: Lawyers who have defended murder convicts at the Court of Appeal (CoA) readily confess that it is one of the most difficult tasks in their profession. This is mainly because if their clients lose the appeal, they are at the least likely to have their sentences reduced or at the worst being sentenced to death.
The lawyers stated that the stakes are very high in convincing the CoA panel of judges to spare the lives of the murder convicts.
According to the 2010 book Angel of Death Row: My Life as a Death Penalty Defence Lawyer, an American, Adrea Lyon may have achieved more than any defence lawyer in the world in managing to spare the lives of death row convicts.
Lyon, the book says, has 30 years of experience representing condemned murderers.
The book states that Lyon who is the founder of the Center for Justice in Capital Cases based in Illinois (US) is also a professor of law at DePaul University College of Law.
Lyon, the book adds, won all her 19-murder cases that her clients were facing and managed to spare their lives.
A major US publication, Chicago Times dubbed Lyons ‘the angel of death row’ for her extraordinary heroics.
In Botswana, no lawyer has of course achieved that feat although it should be noted that very few people in Botswana are sentenced to death while many are sentenced to death in US states that carry out the death penalty partly because of the comparatively larger US population.
Local lawyers hardly save their clients from the gallows and if successful in rare instances, they manage to at least convince the CoA to reduce the sentence of their clients from capital punishment to many years in jail.
Attorney Jeremia has so far managed to free two murder convicts on death row.
Jeremia first saved the life of his client, Bonang Makwati from the gallows in 2012 at the CoA.
He repeated that feat in January this year when appearing for his client Tsholofelo Maswela before a panel of judges.
Jeremia started practicing law in the private sector after he graduated from the University of Botswana (UB) in 2008 and was president of the UB Student Representative Council (SRC) from 2007 to 2008.
He first cut his teeth at a prominent law firm in the country Kgalemang and Associates, which was owned by the late renowned criminal law counsel, Phazha Kgalemang.
Asked about how he felt after sparing the lives of his clients who were condemned to death, Jeremia said: “It obviously feels good to do my part in ensuring that justice is done. The law is about justice. What I have done is my small contribution to the criminal justice system”.
Gesticulating with his hands to substantiate
He was, however, quick to put that point in its proper perspective, and said: “What you have just asked is very interesting and happens in both ways. Sometimes someone is sentenced at the High Court and is being given a light sentence, which he or she later appeals. The sentence may be increased or enhanced by the CoA. Simultaneously, sometimes someone gets a conviction which will be later be overturned on appeal”.
Jeremia added: “That is the way the criminal justice system works. That is the purpose of the appellate court. The appellate court’s duty is to carefully scrutinise the decisions of the lower court”.
He said the reason why his clients were spared the gallows is because of insufficient evidence to justify a conviction.
“In other words, their cases have not been proved beyond reasonable doubt.”
To prevent people who are innocent from being sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit, Jeremia noted: “One of the most important things that defence lawyers who are assigned to murder cases is that they should be adequately paid for their services. The Administration of Justice (AoJ) needs to pay lawyers well. Lawyers currently doing that job feel that the fees they are being paid are very low and not commensurate with the amount of work they do”.
Jeremia decried that the fees that the AoJ pays to defence lawyers who represent murder convicts on pro deo basis serve only to attract inexperienced lawyers to take those cases.
He added: “This may often affect the quality of assistance that murder accused persons get.
Defence attorneys are there to help the court to minimise chances of the court reaching convictions that are wrong. This is where the issue of experience and thoroughly preparing for cases comes in. Lawyers have a duty to help the court to reach just conclusions”. Although he has not been active since he graduated from UB, Jeremia is still nostalgic about politics.
He said: “I have not been active in politics ever since I started practising law. This was mainly because my legal work takes up a lot of my time. So does my family, my church, the Zion Christian Church. I feel that if I may have been active in politics it would have compromised my other preoccupations,” Jeremia said.
He added he does not have an iota of doubt that the BDP will win the 2019 general elections.
“The BDP will win the elections because it seems to be more united and ready than other parties. I am not sure if the opposition parties will prepare very well for the elections,” he said.