The Supreme Court sitting in Abuja has affirmed the death sentence on a primary school teacher in Imo State, Chifoanu Virginia Okorie, over her involvement in the gruesome murder in 2005, of a community leader and retired police officer, Nze Dominic Ohamadiaku Duru in Izombe, Oguta Local Government Area of Imo State.
Delivering judgment in suit number: SC/640/2014, between Chifoanu Okorie and the State, John Inyang Okoro, leading other four justices of the Supreme Court, dismissed Okorie’s appeal to have the decision of the Owerri Court of Appeal overturned. In aligning itself with the 17th July, 2014 decision of the Court of Appeal sitting in Owerri (which affirmed the earlier death sentence passed on Mrs. Okorie and seven others by an Owerri High Court), the nation’s apex court put the final judicial seal on the fate of the appellant by dismissing the appeal brought before it, describing it as devoid of any “scintilla of merit”.
In his background to the judgement, he explains:
“This is an appeal against the judgement of the Court of Appeal, Owerri Division, delivered on 17th July, 2014 wherein the Court affirmed the conviction and sentence to death of the appellant by the High Court of Imo State, holden at Owerri for the offence of murder. The appellant was one of the nine accused persons charged with murder contrary to section 319 (1) of the Criminal Code, Cap 30 Vol. 11 Laws of Eastern Nigeria 1963 as applicable to Imo State of Nigeria…”
“At the hearing of this appeal on 21st September, 2017, the learned Senior counsel for the appellant D.C. Denwigwe SAN, leading others, identified, adopted and relied on their brief of argument filed on 10/2/15. The five issues formulated are contained on page 2 which state as follows: Was the Court of Appeal right in upholding the decision of the trial court to rely on the evidence of Dr. Gogo Abite, PW4 in arriving at the conclusion that the conviction of the appellant by the trial court was right and sustainable? Was the Court of Appeal right when it upheld the decision of the learned trial Judge which rejected the evidence of Dr. Egejuru (PW7) and refused to rely on the autopsy report issued by Dr. Egejuru, regarding the cause of death of the deceased? Was the Court of Appeal right when it came to the conclusion that medical evidence was not sine qua non for establishing the guilt of the appellant in the circumstance of this case? Whether sustaining the conviction of the appellant for the offence of murder, did not in the circumstance constitute a denial of the appellant’s constitutional right to fair hearing? Was the Court of Appeal right when it proceeded to sustain the conviction of the appellant by the trial court in the circumstance of this case?”
In the brief of the respondent, filed by A.N. Eluwa, Solicitor General of Imo state, leading other counsel filed on 21st June, 2016, four issues were “distilled for the determination of this appeal” by the apex court.
Eluwa said: “Whether the Court of Appeal was right in upholding the decision of the trial court in accepting the medical evidence of PW4 -Dr. Gogo Abite, while rejecting the medical evidence of DW7-Dr. Egejuru and Dr. Onoyona, regarding the cause of death of the deceased. Whether there were material contradictions in the evidence of prosecution that created doubts in the mind of the trial court capable of vitiating conviction. Whether the trial court considered the defense of alibi raised by the appellant and rightly held that same did not avail her, and whether the Court of Appeal was right in upholding same. Whether the prosecution, on the totality of direct, credible and admissible evidence adduced at the trial, proved the offence of murder against the appellant beyond reasonable doubt, warranting her conviction.”
After the legal fireworks that ensued, the apex court resolved the five grounds of appeal in favour of the respondent and found the appeal incompetent.
He said: “Having resolved the five issues nominated by the learned silk for the determination of this appeal against the appellant, this appeal is adjudged devoid of any scintilla of merit. It is accordingly dismissed by me. The Judgement of the of the Court of Appeal which upheld the conviction and sentence of the appellant is further affirmed by this court. Appeal is hereby dismissed.”
Agreeing with the lead judgement, Justice Musa Dattijo Muhammad said: “my learned brother John Inyang Okoro had obliged me the draft of his lead judgement just delivered. I agree with his lordship’s reasoning and conclusion that the appeal lacks merit and that it be dismissed…. I dismiss the appeal and I abide by the consequential orders made in the lead judgement.”
Also delivering his Judgement on the matter, another member of the panel, Justice Amiru Sanusi said: “His lordship Justice J.I. Okoro has graciously obliged me with a copy of the lead judgement…. Having perused same, I must say that His lordship has ably and painstakingly treated all the salient issues in contention…..before arriving at his conclusion that this appeal lacks merit and deserves to be dismissed. While adopting his reasoning and conclusion as mine, it is also my judgement that the appeal is meritless and I accordingly dismiss same without any hesitation. I affirm the judgement of the court below, which had also earlier on affirmed the decision of the trial High Court. Appeal is accordingly dismissed my me”.
Another member of the panel, Justice Kudirat M.O. Kekere-Ekun also joined other members of the panel in affirming the death sentence; while only one member of the five-man panel, Justice Ejembi Eko gave a dissenting (minority) judgement.
Meanwhile, seven other related cases are yet to be determined by the apex court.