During my recent trip to Uganda to assist with a plea-bargaining reform project, I met two prisoners who were considering whether to plead guilty even though they were not (simply to escape conditions I would not wish upon my worst enemy). I agreed to help each of them after the project concluded and my return to the United States. Below is the story of and end result for one of those men, Bahemuka Herbert.
Mr. Herbert was accused of murder. He’d spent a couple years in prison already. He likely would have waited another few for trial. If convicted, he faced the death penalty, but likely would have received 30-35 years.
The problem with him pleading guilty was that he was innocent. As much as I would like to share the details of Mr. Herbert’s substantive story, these are client confidences that belong to Mr. Herbert. Sufficed to say, it was a clear case of self-defense.
Thus, we asked to meet with the Ugandan prosecutors. After our discussion, the line prosecutor (as we’d call him in the U.S.) was convinced of Mr. Herbert’s innocence. We then spoke with his boss, who eventually agreed. Unfortunately, it was 5pm, the plea bargaining project was over, and we were leaving town. A dismissal of the charges would still require approval from the head prosecutor in Uganda, who was out of the country at the time. There was a fear that, after we left, the system would simply re-swallow Mr. Herbert. As a result, we considered advising Mr. Herbert to take a plea to a lesser charge, such as manslaughter (and be released in a few years), despite his innocence.
I told Mr. Herbert that if he did not plead guilty, I would continue to pursue his case with the prosecutors, but from the United States. He bravely decided to not plead guilty.
Over the following weeks, the prosecutors and I stayed in touch. They were professional, hard-working, and honest. They did what they said they would. They obtained approval to dismiss the case from the head prosecutor in Uganda. And they brought Mr. Herbert to court to finalize the dismissal. I can claim no brilliance here. The case didn’t require great skill…just attention and follow up.
A few days ago, as the prosecutor put it when he sent me the dismissal paperwork:
“He is set free. He is sent home today.”
I look forward to visiting Mr. Herbert on my next trip to East Africa.