Nosike Iboji V. The State (2016)
LAWGLOBAL HUB Lead Judgment Report
JOHN INYANG OKORO, J.S.C.
This is an appeal against the judgment of the Court of Appeal holden at Benin delivered on the 16th day of July, 2013, affirming the judgment of the High Court of Delta State sitting at Ogwashi-Uku in Suit No. 014C/2010. The appellant and two others were found guilty and convicted for the offence of conspiracy to commit murder of one Smart Okwute and sentenced to ten (10) years imprisonment each with hard labour.
The facts giving birth to this appeal as can be gleaned from the record shows that the appellant and three other persons were originally arraigned before the trial High Court on 1st December, 2010 upon information filed on 19th, August, 2010. The original information was subsequently substituted by a four count information on 12th January, 2011.
In the information filed by the State, the 1st, 2nd (appellant herein) and 3rd accused persons were charged with the following offences:
STATEMENT OF OFFENCE: COUNT 1
Conspiracy to commit felony to wit: murder, punishable under S.324 of the Criminal Code Law Cap. C. 21 Vol. 1 Laws of Delta State, 2006 .
PARTICULARS OF OFFENCE
OKEMEFUNE NDOZIE (M), NOSIKE
IBOJI (M), CHIBUZOR NKEMEBOUWOR (M) and others now at large on or about the 21st day of March, 2010 at Otulu, in Ogwashiuku Judicial Division did conspire to commit murder.
STATEMENT OF OFFENCE: COUNT II
Murder, punishable under S. 319(1) of the Criminal Code Law Cap C.21 Vol. 1 Laws of Delta State, 2006.
PARTICULARS OF OFFENCE
OKEMEFUNE NDOZIE (M), NOSIKE IBOJI (M), CHIBUZOR NKEMEBOUWOR (M) and others now at large on or about the 21st day of March, 2010 at Otulu, in Ogwashi-Uku Judicial Division murdered one SMART OKUTE.
STATEMENT OF OFFENCE: COUNT III
Membership of unlawful society punishable under S.64 of the Criminal Code Law Cap. C.21 Vol. I Laws of Delta State, 2006.
PARTICULARS OF OFFENCE
OKEMEFUNE NDOZIE (M), NOSIKE IBOJI (M), CHIBUZOR NKEMEBOUWOR (M) and others now at large on or about the 21st day of March, 2010 at Otulu, in Ogwashi-Uku Judicial Division belong to the unlawful society known as Jurice.
The 4th accused was also charged as follows:
STATEMENT OF OFFENCE: COUNT IV
Accessory after the fact to murder punishable under S. 322 of the Criminal Code Law Cap. C.21 vol. 1 Laws of Delta State, 2006.
PARTICULARS OF OFFENCE
MEKWENYE HEZEKIAH, well knowing that
one Onyeka and Onyebushi Mekwunye did on the 21st day of March, 2010 murdered one Smart Okute, did on the 21st day of March, 2010 in Ogwashi-Uku Judicial Division and on other days thereafter receive, comfort, harbor, assist and maintain the said Onyeka and Onyebushi Mekunye.
At the trial, the prosecution called five witnesses and each of the accused persons testified in his own behalf and called no witness. The respondent’s case was that the appellant, along with the 1st and 3rd accused at the trial were members of an unlawful society known as ‘Jurice’ and that they conspired to murder and indeed murdered the deceased on the 21st day of March, 2010. The case against the 4th accused was that his sons were members of the said ‘Jurice’ and that they were involved in the murder of the deceased to the knowledge of the 4th accused who assisted them to flee from justice.
The appellant testified for himself and called no other witness. He denied being a member of the ‘Jurice’ and further denied being a part of any conspiracy to murder the deceased. Each of the other accused persons also testified for themselves individually without calling any other witness. Written
addresses were subsequently exchanged and adopted on behalf of the parties.
In a considered judgment delivered on 23rd May, 2012, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd accused persons were discharged and acquitted in counts II and III but were convicted in Count I and each sentenced to 10 years imprisonment without option of fine while the 4th accused person was discharged and acquitted in Count IV.
The 1st, 2nd and 3rd accused persons being dissatisfied with the conviction and sentence, filed separate notices of appeal against the said decision.
On 16th July, 2013, the Court of Appeal, Benin delivered judgment and affirmed the conviction of the appellant, thus dismissing his appeal.
Dissatisfied with the decision of the Court of Appeal, the appellant, on 7th August 2013 filed notice of appeal raising two grounds of appeal therein. Parties filed and exchanged briefs.
On 12th November, 2015 when this appeal was heard, learned counsel for the appellant Ayo Asala, Esq., adopted and relied on the brief of argument he filed on 23rd September, 2013. In the said brief, one issue has been formulated for the determination of this appeal. The lone issue states:
“Whether having regard to the
circumstances of this case, and the totality of evidence on record, the Lower Court was right when it affirmed the decision of the learned trial judge who convicted the appellant for conspiracy to commit murder.”
Also, in the brief settled by O. F. Enenmo, Esq., Deputy Director, Department Public Prosecution, Ministry of Justice, Asaba, Delta State, the respondent has also formulated one issue for determination. The said issue is similar to that of the appellant but couched differently as follows:-
“Whether the Lower Court was right when it affirmed the judgment of the trial Court that the prosecution proved the charge of conspiracy to commit murder against the appellant beyond reasonable doubt.”
I shall, in the circumstance, determine this appeal based on the lone issue distilled by both parties. As would be expected, the learned counsel for the appellant submitted that the Lower Court was wrong when it affirmed the decision of the trial Court that the prosecution proved the charge of conspiracy against the appellant beyond reasonable doubt and on what constitutes the offence of conspiracy, he referred to the cases of Njovens V. The State (1998) ACLR pg.264,
Akinwemi V. State (1987) 1 NWLR (pt. 52) 608, Sodiya V. State (2011) All FWLR (pt. 560) 1357. According to learned counsel, where the evidence on record does not reveal any agreement on the part of the accused persons, the charge of conspiracy is not made out, citing the case of Oladejo V. State (1994) 6 NWLR (pt. 348) 101 at 127 paras. G – H. Also relying on the case of Oladejo (supra), learned counsel submitted that where an accused person has been acquitted on a charge of the substantive offence, he cannot at the same time be found guilty of conspiracy to commit the same offence unless where one of the co-accused persons admits the conspiracy or where there are other evidence to sustain the conspiracy.
Relating the above principle to the instant appeal, the learned counsel submitted that since the appellant was discharged and acquitted for the offence of murder and there being no admission by the appellant in Exhibit C – his extra-judicial statement, there was no evidence upon which to infer conspiracy.
Learned counsel further submitted that the concurrent findings of the trial and Lower Courts were based on wrong evaluation of the extra-judicial statement
made by the appellant which was admitted as Exhibit C at the trial Court. He contended that there is nothing from the evidence on record, including Exhibit C to prove that the appellant agreed with other persons to commit any unlawful act especially having regard to the particulars in the count of conspiracy. According to learned counsel, there is nowhere in Exhibit C which appellant stated that he was present at the scene of crime or within the vicinity on the day the crime was committed.
On the statement of the appellant in Exhibit C that “the person that shot (sic) Smart Okwute is Chaplet (M), Onyeka (M) was the person that reported the late Smart Okwute in our secret cult meeting before the fight”, learned counsel submitted that it cannot be relied on to support the conclusion that there was an agreement among the accused persons to commit the murder of the deceased. Moreso, that PW4, under cross examination said he did not see the 2nd accused among the group. According to him, conspiracy could not be inferred from the evidence on record including Exhibit C. He urged the Court to resolve the issue in favour of the appellant.
In response, the learned counsel
for the respondent submitted that having regard to the state of evidence before the Court, the Lower Court was right in law when it affirmed the judgment of the trial Court that the prosecution proved the charge of conspiracy to commit murder against the appellant beyond reasonable doubt. On the meaning of proof beyond reasonable doubt, learned counsel referred to the cases of Ogunzee V. The State (1998) 5 LRCN 3512 at 3551 and Edamine V. The State (1996) 3 NWLR (pt. 38) 530 at 531.
Learned counsel further opined that since the gist of the offence of conspiracy is embedded in the agreement or plot between the parties, it is rarely capable of direct proof. That it is an offence that is deduced from the act of the parties which is focused towards the realization of their common or mutual criminal purpose, relying on Njovens & Ors Vs. The State (1973) 5 SC 17. He argued that the trial Court did not rely on Exhibit C alone to infer conspiracy but also on the evidence of PW1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. That evidence shows that the deceased was killed by a group of boys who belong to a secret society called the Jurice to which the appellant and the 1st and 3rd accused in
this case are members. He drew the attention of the Court to the evidence of prosecution witnesses who saw the appellant and members of the cult group pursue the deceased into the bush. That the body of the deceased was recovered from that same bush a day later. Learned counsel further submitted that the appellant and members of their cult group had earlier met and discussed the dispute between the deceased and two of their members before meeting on 21/3/10 for the fight which led to the death of the deceased.
Learned counsel finally submitted that a conviction for the offence of conspiracy does not become inappropriate because the substantive offence of murder was not proved, relying on the case of Balogun Vs. A.G. Ogun State (2002) 94 LRCN 260 at 270. Learned counsel then urged the Court to resolve this issue against the appellant.The offence of conspiracy is the agreement of two or more Persons to do an unlawful act, or to do a lawful act by unlawful means. In the old case of Njovens V. State (1973) 5 SC 12, also reported in (1975) LPELR – 2042 SC at p. 57 paras. A – F, this Court held as follows:-
“The overt act or omission which evidences conspiracy is the
actus reus and the actus of each and every conspirator must be referable and very often is the only proof of the criminal agreement which is called conspiracy. It is not necessary to prove that the conspirators, like those who murdered Julius Ceasar, were seen together coming out of the same place at the same time and indeed conspirators need not know each other. See R. V. Mayrick and Ribuffi (1929) 21 C App. R.94. They need not all have started the conspiracy at the same time for a conspiracy started by some persons may be joined at a later stage or later stages by others. The gist of the offence of conspiracy is the meeting of the mind of the conspirators. This is hardly capable of direct proof for the offence of conspiracy is complete by the agreement to do the act or make the omission complained about. Hence, conspiracy is a matter of inference from certain criminal acts of the parties concerned done in pursuance of an apparent criminal purpose in common between them and in proof of conspiracy the acts or omission of any of the conspirators in furtherance of the common design may be and very often are given in evidence against any other or others of the
The essential ingredients of the offence of conspiracy lie in the agreement to do an unlawful act which is contrary to or forbidden by law and it does not matter whether or not the accused persons had knowledge of its unlawfulness. See Clark V. The State (1986) 4 NWLR (pt. 35) 381. The crime of conspiracy is usually hatched with utmost secrecy and the law recognizes the fact that in such a situation, it might not always be easy to lead direct and distinct evidence to prove it. Thus, it is always open to the trial judge to infer conspiracy from the facts of the case. Since the gist of the offence of conspiracy is embedded in the agreement or plot between the parties, it is rarely capable of direct proof, it is invariably an offence that is inferentially deduced from the acts of the parties thereto which are focused towards the realization of their common or mutual criminal purpose. See Dr. Segun Ogunye V. The State (2001) 2 NWLR (pt. 697) 311.
In Daboh V. The State (1977) All NLR 146 (1977) 5 SC 122, the late legal luminary, Lord Justice Udo Udoma, JSC put the matter more succinctly thus:
“It may be stated that where persons are charged with
criminal conspiracy, it is usually required that the conspiracy as laid in the charge be proved, and that the persons charged be so proved to have been engaged in it. On the other hand, as it is not always easy to prove the actual agreement, Courts usually consider it sufficient if it be established by evidence the circumstances from which the Court would consider it safe and reasonable to infer or presume the conspiracy.”
In the instant case, the facts as stated earlier in this judgment shows that the appellant and other co-conspirators are members of an unlawful society called the ‘Jaurice’ and on 21/3/10 they all assembled at Otulu village, fought the deceased and the deceased was later found dead in a bush where he was pursued into by the appellant and his cohorts. The appellant admitted these facts in his statement to the police which was admitted as Exhibit C. On page 65 of the record, the learned trial judge made far reaching findings and conclusions which were, in my opinion rightly accepted by the Lower Court. It states:
“All the accused persons are not from Otulu. Was it then a mere coincidence that the members of the group came to Otulu on 21/3/2010 to
fight In Exhibit C, the statement of the 2nd accused person, he stated that one Onyeka had reported the late Smart Okwute in their secret cult meeting before the ‘fight operation’ took place. It appears the fate of the deceased was sealed at that meeting. In the light of the evidence before the Court, it does not appear to be a coincidence that members of the group invaded Otulu on the date material to this charge and participated in a fight, in the course of which the deceased was killed. Though the prosecution did not successfully establish that it was the act of the accused persons which caused the death of the deceased, the offence of conspiracy to murder the deceased can be inferentially deduced from the above facts.”
I strongly agree with the Lower Court that the above findings of the trial Court is impeachable. It is clear in exhibit C that before the ‘fight operation one Onyeka had reported the deceased in their secret cult meeting. I agree with the two Lower Courts that the fate of the deceased might have been sealed in that meeting. That was why the cult members, who are not from the village of Utulu, converged there for the
‘fight operation.’ It is a well established principle of law that the conspirators need not all have started the conspiracy at the same time, for a conspiracy started by some persons may be joined at a later stage or later stages by others. See Njovens V. State (supra).
It was suggested by the learned counsel for the appellant that having discharged and acquitted the appellant on the count of murder, the conviction on the count of conspiracy cannot stand. I do not think so. It is a known principle of law that conspiracy to commit an offence, is a separate and distinct offence and it is independent of the actual commission of the offence to which the conspiracy is related.
An offence of conspiracy can be committed where persons have acted either by an agreement or in concert. Bare agreement to commit an offence is sufficient. The actual commission of the offence is not necessary. See Silas Sule v. The State (2009) 17 NWLR (pt. 1169) 33, Ikemson V. The State (1989) 3 NWLR (pt. 110) 455 at 467 – 468, Balogun V. Att. Gen. Ogun State (2002) 2 SCNJ 196 at 209.
It is my view therefore, that although the appellant was discharged and acquitted of the offence of murder
for insufficient evidence, the learned trial judge properly inferred conspiracy from the facts of this case. The Court below was therefore right to affirm those findings and decision.
In sum, I uphold the judgment of the Court below delivered on 16th July, 2013 which judgment affirmed the conviction and sentence of the appellant by the trial Court on 23/5/12. The appeal is therefore unmeritorious and is accordingly dismissed.