The Supreme Court sitting in Abuja has affirmed the death sentence on a primary school teacher in Imo State, Mrs. 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 Mrs. 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 (Mrs), 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.
“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.
“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.
Chifoanu’s Journey to the Hangman
A High Court sitting in Owerri, the Imo state capital, in May, 2013, sentenced eight (8) persons to death by hanging, including Chifoanu Okorie, for their involvement in the brutal murder of one Nze Dominic Ohamadiaku Duru, an ex-Police officer and community leader from Izombe in Oguta Local Government Area of Imo state.
High Court 7, Owerri, presided over by Hon. Justice C.M.I. Egole found the accused persons guilty of murder, following an overwhelming evidence before it; even as it freed the ninth accused person-Susana James Duru for having not actively participated in the dastardly act.
The convicted persons, who were all found guilty of first degree murder are: James Ugwuoha Duru, Fester Nuforo, Alexander Nnadi (Alias Apollo), Friday Nuforo, Jonathan Chuddy Nnadi, Chifoanu Okorie, Mattias Ohazurike and Evans Egbujor.
Delivering the landmark judgement in suit number: HOW/4C/2007, the presiding Judge analysed all the evidence before it and found eight, out of the nine accused persons guilty of conspiracy and murder.
“You are to be hanged by your neck until you are drained of your life breath and you are dead and may God have mercy on your soul,” the judgement reads in part.
Investigations revealed that the freed Susana James-Ugwuoha (wife of James Ugwuoha Duru) was linked to one of the murderers by marriage and although she is said to have accompanied her husband to the house of the deceased on the fateful day to lure him to the scene of the crime, she hadn’t actively participated in the dastardly act.
Trouble started when the convicted persons conspired and murdered the deceased on the 3rd of March, 2005 following a protracted land matter and other sundry community issues.
According to available reports, the condemned persons had on the said day, lured the deceased to his farm land in a bush (Okpouzi) in the village where they laid siege for him and ended his life.
In an attempt to cover up their atrocity, the murderers earlier influenced the falsification of the autopsy conducted on the corpse of the deceased, alleging that he died of a natural cause. They had also touted a traditional story of the deceased being used for rituals; the diversionary steps never yielded fruits.
Following a Federal High Court ruling, the falsified autopsy was nullified and an independent autopsy ordered. The independent autopsy revealed the actual cause of the death of Nze Duru, having died as a result of “multiple homicidal injuries…”
The matter which lingered for over a decade survived all intrigues adopted by the accused persons to either buy time or pervert justice.
Reacting to the judgement of the apex court, first son of the deceased, Chief Emmanuel Duru described it as victory for justice, even as he commended the Judiciary for maintaining its status as the last hope of a common man.
He lamented the incessant killing of innocent people in the area and called on the government to take urgent steps to sanitize the area in the interest of the citizenry. He however urged the people to flee from evil practices and turn to God for salvation.
Further investigations revealed that since after the murder of Nze Duru and the eventual condemnation of those involved, no other mysterious death has been recorded in the area till date.
Our Correspondent reports that late Nze Dominic Duru is the seventh in the series of unresolved murder cases in Amaudara village. All the murder cases were committed in the bush in Amaudara, a small village in Obeabo Autonomous community of Izombe in Oguta LGA of Imo state.
It would be recalled that following the several cases of unresolved cold-blooded murder in the area, an Owerri-based tabloid (Newspoint), in one of its 2005 publications described Izombe as Imo’s Golgotha.
Amaudara, the tiny village in Obeabo, Izombe, in which every other thing seems to be in short supply except misery and pain, is no stranger to mysterious disappearances and homicide.
Anthony Ezema, a village thug was felled in a cult-related killing in Amaudara in 1983; next in line was Joseph ‘Joe’ Nwanyiafor, from the neighbouring Amakpuruedere village whose body is yet to be found till this day. Edward Ezema (elder brother to Anthony) was later to boast during a drunken-spree that ‘the easiest way to make a body disappear, together with its bones is to have it interred in an anthill’. Edward, Anthony and one of the earlier condemned- Matthias ‘Hitler’ Ohazuruike are brothers (of the same parents).
Then, there followed Augustina Cyril-Uzoma, a middle-aged woman who left her home early in the morning to harvest cassava, only to turn up two hours later in a body-bag. Then, Francis Onyejiekwe, a middle-aged farmer followed suit: his fate similar to Augustina’s. It was a bountiful harvest of death.
The 7th on the list of murdered persons, Nze Duru is the only case that has been prosecuted to a conclusive end.
James Ugwuoha-Duru had lured Nze Ohamadiaku Duru, the Patriarch of the famed Durunaegbu dynasty to the farm where he was mercilessly massacred by a gang led by Alexander Nnadi and cohorts.
After the dastard act of eliminating Nze Duru, they commenced a scheme of plundering the farmlands and agricultural produce of the aged wife of Nze Duru (an issue that is the subject of a civil and criminal (contempt) suit).