There were several high profile cases in 2014 that were decided by the criminal courts. One of them was the handing down of life sentences on June 17 against 18 Liberians by then Judge Emery Paye of Criminal Court D’ at the Temple of Justice.
The men were convicted for their involvement in a cross border raid in neighboring Cote’d Ivoire where hundreds of people, including seven United Nations peacekeepers, were killed.
Judge Paye’s sentencing followed the Jurors’ guilty verdict against the defendants. However, the case is still before the full bench of the High Court to which the defendants’ lawyers have appealed against the lower court’s ruling.
Another dramatic decision in 2014 saw the Supreme Court reverse the guilty verdict handed down by Criminal Court ‘A’ on March 10, 2010 against Hans Capehart Williams and Mardea Pakue.
Williams and Pakue were declared guilty of murdering little Angel Togba in 2007. Before their release the pair was imprisoned at the Monrovia Central Prison.
In that judgment, Chief Justice Francis Saye Korkpor himself declared that under the law, every accused person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and the prosecution must prove the guilt of the accused with such legal certainty and beyond a reasonable doubt.
Those were the reasons relied on to drop the charge against the couple and to release them from further detention, the Chief Justice said.
He further maintained that Hans and Mardea were charged with murder, a capital offense, and as such, it was the duty and responsibility under the law for the prosecution to establish the cause of death attributable to the accused, otherwise the accused is entitled to acquittal.
The Chief Justice said the prosecution failed to meet these mandatory threshold standards to convict Capehart Williams and Madia Pakue Williams, which the lower court ignored.
A major achievement of the judiciary in 2014 was the manner in which it handled complaints surrounding the just ended Special Senatorial Election, where it managed to place a stay order on all electoral activities.
Some of the complaints were the holding of the election amid the deadly Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), which the complainants felt was unconstitutional.
That argument was put to rest when three of the two justices of the Supreme Court of Liberia decided to deny the request and ordered that the election proceed as planned while the virus, though ongoing, was subsiding and preventive measure had been incorporated in the voting process.
Another major issue of contention during 2014 was the Executive Order Number 65 issued by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf prohibiting, banning or proscribing the "mass movement of people, including rallies, parades and demonstrations," in the wake of the Ebola virus. The order came at a time of mounting public concern about the mass gathering of people during the senatorial campaign period. The concern stemmed from heightened awareness that the Ebola virus is contracted by touching people with the disease.
President Sirleaf on signing Executive Order No. 65 on December 3, 2014, said the order was intended to strengthen the Government’s efforts to contain the spread of Ebola, protect the security of the State, maintain law and order and promote peace and stability in the country.
The order noted that the existing law requiring persons desiring to march or demonstrate to obtain prior permits from the Ministry of Justice had proven ineffective to address rallies, parades and concerted mass movements on the streets of Monrovia and its environs.
The Government argued that the increasing number of incidents of concerted mass movements of people on the streets of Monrovia and its environs, including in particular rallies, demonstrations and parades, led to persistent and frequent violations of the Vehicle and Traffic Laws of Liberia, obstruction of the free flow of traffic and the movement of peaceful citizens, the disruption of economic activities, and concomitant panic in the city with total disregard of the consequences thereof. An example of this was the mass rally of then Montserrado Senatorial candidate George Weah which paralyzed the capital city from morning to night.
The order noted that to allow the mass rallies to continue with impunity and without control, would frustrate efforts to contain the Ebola virus disease in Liberia, undermine the security of the State and the maintenance of law and order, and negatively impact the economy.
Interestingly, those who filed the complaints including Robert Sirleaf, one of the President’s sons, later chose to drop the contention against Executive Order No.65.
It is yet to be explained what motivated complainants against the order to withdraw their case before the full bench of the Supreme Court?
A major failure of the Judicial Branch of Government is closely related to its lack of capacity to disseminate information to the Liberian public. This includes the handling of civil and criminal cases. Admittedly, the Chief Justice is to be commended for often publishing the Opinions delivered by the Full Bench of the Supreme Court. But the opinions of the lower courts, on the other hand, are hard to obtain. Much needs to be done in that direction.
For argument’s sake, the High Court is not a political institution, like the other two branches of government.
The Liberia National Bar Association (LNBA), during 2014 did not take the initiative to engage in creating awareness about how the courts make decisions to enlighten the public, which is one of their functions.
The general public and even the practicing legal professionals know remarkably little about the judges—how they decide cases, how they allocate work between staff and themselves, their work ethic, philosophies, and extralegal influences that play on them.
We further mention the slow pace of work in criminal courts, A, B, C, D and E in the handling of case during 2014. Despite 2014 being a challenging year, those courts judged over 100 cases only, a problem they constantly blamed on “limited budgetary allocation.”
For the most part of 2014 the Judiciary has continuously advocated for more budgetary allocation because, according to them, it is the only way they can improve the justice system in the country.
Only one of those courts, Criminal Court ‘C’ presided over by Judge Yussif Kaba, can be said to have made great strides, during 2014.
Judge Kaba alone dropped over 50 cases on grounds that the state failed to collect evidences to prosecute those accused of committing the crimes. This begs the question, why didn’t he complain of budgetary constraints?
The courts’ failure to perform their duties expeditiously is responsible for the overcrowding of prison facilities throughout the country.
There were many other discrepancies in the judiciary in 2014, such as the bribery allegations involving potential jurors to bring down verdicts in the favor of party litigants.
Surprisingly, if that individual juror is caught, the court does not go after or punish any other party such as the lawyer and party litigant; instead, it is the juror that usually bears the full weight of the law.
While the Judiciary was struggling to make progress, earlier in the year, unfortunately, the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) broke-out. The Full Bench of the Supreme Court of Liberia contributed 25% of their salaries and allowances to fight the disease.
But they warned that a mechanism for the strictest accountability must be established to ensure proper use of the funds. This concern is apparently because of the manner in which funds are handled by government.
The High Court Bench comprises of the Chief Justice and four Associate Justices.
Each of the Associate Justices receives US$9,000 monthly take home pay while the Chief Justice receives US$12,000 per month.