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Home » Nigerian Cases » Supreme Court » The State Vs James Gwangwan (2015) LLJR-SC

The State Vs James Gwangwan (2015) LLJR-SC

The State Vs James Gwangwan (2015)

LAWGLOBAL HUB Lead Judgment Report

JOHN INYANG OKORO, J.S.C.

This is an appeal against the judgment of the Court of Appeal, sitting at Ilorin delivered on 25th January, 2011 wherein it set aside the judgment of the High Court of Kwara State, Ilorin which had earlier convicted and sentenced the appellant to 14 years imprisonment on a charge of conspiracy to commit armed robbery contrary to Section 6 of the Robbery and Firearms (Special Provisions) Act 2004. The Court of Appeal entered a verdict of discharge and acquittal for the respondent. A synopsis of the facts will suffice.

On 4th July, 2006, while PW5, one Abioye Moses was on duty at the Police Station, Ajasaipo, a team of police officers led by one Cpl. Inusa Ibrahim arrested and brought to the station, one Joshua John together with one cartridge where he (Joshua) confessed that he belonged to a six-man gang of armed robbers whose names he mentioned, including the respondent herein. All the named persons except one were arrested and, according to PW5, they all confessed to participating in robbery activities in Offa and its environs. After investigation, four of the six accused persons were charged with conspiracy to commit armed robbery and armed robbery contrary to Section 6(b) and 1(2) of the Robbery and Firearms (Special Provisions) Act Cap. R11 Laws of Federation of Nigeria, 2004 respectively. However, the charges against the 4th and 6th accused persons before the trial court were dropped upon the application of the prosecution on the grounds that the 1st accused, one Joshua John who was granted bail by the police, jumped bail and that the 6th accused, one Shina, had been at large and was never apprehended. Consequently, it was the respondent alongside three other accused persons that stood trial for the offences charged.

During the trial, the prosecution in proof of its case against the respondent and other accused persons, called five witnesses and tendered one locally made gun and two life cartridges. The prosecution also tendered in evidence what it termed the confessional statements of the accused persons.

The respondent and others standing trial with him objected to the admissibility of the said statements on the ground of involuntariness which led the trial court to order a trial within trial to determine its admissibility.

However, midway into the trial within trial, it was aborted by the learned trial judge on the ground that the respondent’s and other accused persons’ evidence amounted to a retraction rather than a challenge to its voluntariness. He proceeded to admit the statements into evidence.

In his judgment the learned trial judge convicted the respondent along with others for the Offence of Criminal Conspiracy to commit Armed Robbery contrary to Section 6 of the Robbery and Firearms Act (supra). He sentenced the respondent and others to 14 years imprisonment each. The trial court discharged and acquitted them on other counts.

Dissatisfied, the respondent appealed to the Court of Appeal which found for the respondent herein, set aside the decision of the learned trial judge and entered a verdict of discharge and acquittal for the respondent.

Also, not being satisfied with the stance of the Lower Court, the appellant has appealed to this court. Notice of appeal was filed on 25th February, 2011 with four grounds of appeal contained therein. Out of the four grounds of appeal, the appellant has distilled two issues for the determination of this appeal.

In the brief settled by Kamaldeen Ajibade, Esq, Hon. Attorney General of Kwara state, for the appellant, which was adopted at the hearing of this appeal, two issues have been distilled for the determination of this appeal. The issues are as follows:

  1. Whether the Lower Court was right to have held that the prosecution did not sustain the charge of conspiracy against the respondent before the trial court.
  2. Whether the Court of Appeal was right to have concluded that the prosecution did not prove its case beyond reasonable doubt against the respondent.

Also, Olumuyiwa Akinboro, Esq., Counsel for the respondent in his brief filed on 13/5/2013 and adopted at the hearing of this appeal, had adopted the two issues exactly as formulated by the appellant. There is therefore no need to reproduce the issues again.

In arguing this appeal, the learned counsel for the appellant sought leave to argue the two issues together. He submitted that in order for the prosecution to succeed whenever the commission of a crime is in issue against an accused person, he must establish its case beyond reasonable doubt, relying on the cases of Miller V. Minister of Pension (1947) 2 All ER 371 at 373, Lori V. The State (1980) 8 – 11 SC.81 and Akalezi v. The State (1993) 2 NWLR (Pt.273) 1.

Learned counsel submitted that the conclusion of the court below which set aside the judgment of the trial court is not in tandem with the law on the issue. He contended that the pieces of evidence in the confessional statement of the respondent, when juxtaposed with the confession of the other accused persons in Exhibits 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10, establish beyond reasonable doubt an inference of conspiracy to commit armed robbery. It is his view that from these exhibits, there was clear evidence of agreement or confederacy among the accused persons including the respondent to strike their deadly act along Offa-Ajase-Ipo highway.

It was further argued that by all known settled principle of law, Exhibit 8 is a confessional statement which was enough to sustain the Offence of Conspiracy against the appellant and that the learned trial judge was right to have convicted the respondent in the circumstances. He opined that a court of law can infer conspiracy from the criminal acts of the parties including evidence of complicity, citing the cases of Iwuneve v. The state (2000) 5 NWLR (Pt.658) 550 at 560 and Osondu V. FRN (2000) 12 NWLR (Pt. 682) 483 at 501.

Finally, learned counsel faulted the decision of the Lower Court that the evidence of PW5 did not corroborate the confessional statement of the respondent. He submitted that the evidence of PW5 in this case is not a repetition of the evidence of the appellant but an independent testimony which not only affects the appellant, but connects him with the offence of conspiracy to rob. The learned Attorney General urged this court to resolve the issues in favour of the appellant.

See also  Abu Isah The State (2008) LLJR-SC

In response, the learned counsel for the respondent also prayed to argue the two issues together. He however merged the two issues into one in the following words:

“Whether the Lower Court was right to have held that the prosecution did not sustain the charge of conspiracy against the respondent nor prove its case beyond reasonable doubt before the trial court”

Referring to the case of Idowu V. The State (2000) 7 SC (Pt.11) 1 at 80 – 81 amongst others, he submitted that where a person is charged with any criminal offence, the onus is on the prosecution to prove the charge beyond reasonable doubt. Also refers to S.135(2) and 139 of the Evidence Act 2011. Learned counsel argued that the learned trial judge erred in law in convicting the respondent and the other accused persons for the offence of conspiracy to commit armed robbery having discharged and acquitted them for the offence of armed robbery.

Learned counsel submitted further that where an accused person is charged with the offence of criminal conspiracy, the prosecution has to prove the conspiracy as laid in the charge and that it was the accused that engaged in the said conspiracy, referring to the case of Deboh V. The State (1977) NSCC 309. He opined that to prove the above, the prosecution has the burden of proving not only the inchoate or rudimentary nature of the offence charged, but also the meeting of the minds of the accused persons with a common intention and purpose to commit the particular offence. He relies on Gbadamosi & Ors V. The State (1991) 6 NWLR (Pt.196) 182 and Obiakor V. State (2002) 10 NWLR (Pt.776) 612.

Learned counsel noted that the learned trial judge relied heavily on the alleged confessional statement of the respondent to convict him for the offence of criminal conspiracy whereas the respondent challenged the voluntariness of the said statement. That he told the court that he was tortured and forced to sign the statement but the learned trial judge terminated the trial within trial and admitted same without testing it according to law. He urged this court to hold that the finding of the trial court was perverse. Referring to several paragraphs of the judgment of the Lower Court, learned counsel submitted that the trial court erred in law when it relied on the legally inadmissible confessional statement of the respondent to convict him for the said offence of criminal conspiracy and that the lower appellate court rightly interfered to set aside the said conviction. He cited the cases of Sele V. The State (1993) 1 NWLR (Pt.267) 282 and Iyaro V. The State (1998) 1 NWLR (Pt.69) 256.

Again, learned counsel faulted the trial court’s reliance on the statements of co-accused persons as corroboration to convict the respondent. This, he contended, is wrong in law, placing reliance on the case of Mbang V. The State (2009) 18 NWLR (Pt.1172) 159. It was further contended that the evidence of prosecution witnesses were adjudged contradictory and yet the learned trial judge used it as corroboration to the evidence of the appellant. He urged this court to hold that the court below was right to hold that evidence of PW5 and that of the other accused persons did not amount to corroboration. He cited the case of Okadichi V. The State (1975) NSCC page 124.

Finally, he submitted that evidence or statement of a co-accused cannot constitute evidence against an accused person unless the accused has adopted the statement by words or conduct, citing the case of Kasa V. The State (1994) 5 NWLR (pt. 344) 269. See also S.29(4) of the Evidence Act 2011. Learned counsel then urged this court to resolve the issues against the appellant.

The issue to be determined in this appeal is whether the prosecution proved the offence of criminal conspiracy made against the appellant beyond reasonable doubt. It is now well settled that in our criminal jurisprudence, in order for the prosecution to succeed whenever the commission of a crime is in issue against an accused person, he is under a duty to establish its case beyond reasonable doubt. It must however be noted that proof beyond reasonable doubt does not mean proof beyond all shadow of doubt. I need to emphasize that in criminal proceedings, the onus is on the prosecution to establish the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt and this would be achieved by ensuring that all the necessary and vital ingredients of the charge or charges are proved by evidence. See Yongo V. Commissioner of Police (1992) LPELR – 3528 (SC), (1992) 4 SCNJ 113, Ogundujan V. State (1991) LPELR – 2333 (SC), (1991) 3 NWLR (Pt.181) 519, Akigbe V. IOG (1959) 4 FSC 203, Onubogu V. The State (1974) 9 SC 1 at 20, Babuga V. State (1996) LPELR – 701 (SC), (1996) 7 NWLR (Pt.460) 279.

By Section 6(b) of the Robbery and Firearms (Special Provisions) Act Cap. R11 Laws of Federation of Nigeria 2004:

“Any person who –

a. ……….

b. Conspires with any person to commit such an offence,

c. ………….

Whether or not he is present when the offence is committed or attempted to be committed, shall be deemed to be guilty of the offence as a principal offender and shall be liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly under this Act.”

Now, the pith and substance of the offence of conspiracy do not lie merely in the intention or thoughts of two or more persons to do an unlawful act or a lawful act by unlawful means, but in the agreement between them to carry out their lawful intention. The actus reus of the offence of conspiracy is the agreement between at least two persons to do an unlawful act or a lawful act by unlawful means. There is no need to prove that the parties actually met and put their heads together. Persons who have never met or seen each other could conspire together by communication especially nowadays where communication is made easy and cheap by the introduction of the mobile phone.

Thus in Gregory Godwin Daboh & Anor V. The State (1977) LPELR – 904 (SC) pp 25 – 26 paras F – A, this court per Udo Udoma, JSC held as follows:

“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 also 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.”

See also  Joseph Asuquo V The State (1967) LLJR-SC

It is also reported in (1977) 5 SC 122. See also Njovens V. The State (1973) 5 SC 12, (1973) LPELR – 204 2 (SC), Lawson V. The State (1975) 4 SC (Reprint) 84, (1975) LPELR -1765 (SC).

In order to prove a charge of conspiracy, the prosecution must establish the element of agreement to do something which is unlawful or to do something which is lawful by unlawful means. Conspiracy is an offence which is difficult to prove because it is often hatched in secrecy. It is usually inferred from the facts and evidence led. More often, circumstantial evidence is used to point to the fact the confederates had agreed on the plan to commit an overt act to infer conspiracy. See David Omotola & Ors V. The State (2009) 7 NWLR (Pt.1139) 148, (2009) LPELR – 2663 (SC).

In the instant appeal, all the evidence available to the court from which conspiracy was inferred come from the alleged confessional statement of the respondent and the co-accused persons. At the trial before the learned trial judge, the respondent herein challenged the admissibility of the alleged confessional statement on the ground that same was not voluntary but was a product of torture by the police who forced him to sign the said statement.

In the circumstance, the learned trial judge opened a trial within trial. However, the said trial was terminated half way into it on the excuse that the respondent’s evidence amounted to a retraction and the court proceeded to admit same holding that the said statement was free and voluntary and thereby constituting a valid confessional statement to sustain a conviction. It was based on the said statement and those of the co-accused persons, that the respondent and others were convicted and sentenced. The Lower Court however found otherwise and set aside the said conviction.

In view of the fact that it was the alleged confessional statement of the respondent which the learned trial judge used to infer conspiracy, I shall at this stage examine the said statement to see if it meets the litmus test of a confessional statement. The court below held that the said statement was unreliable and ought not to have been admitted and used to convict the appellant.

On page 81 of the record, the learned trial judge summed up the case of the respondent as follows:-

“James Gwangwan the 2nd accused gave evidence as PW2 … …. He said he told the police he had nothing to say as a result of which they started beating and torturing him after which they brought a boy he did not know. He said PW5 then brought out a paper and made him to sign. He said he signed the paper before he read it to him and what he read out was not what he told him. He testified that after 3-4 days they were taken to State CIP, Ilorin where the same thing happened in that he was brought out of the cell to make statement and on refusing he was beaten and tortured and he decided to cooperate. He said he was asked many questions. He said they later brought a paper for him to sign as his statement and he signed it.”

The above was the summary of the evidence of the respondent by the learned trial judge. But in spite of the clear evidence by the respondent that he was beaten up and tortured to sign the alleged confessional statement, the learned trial judge held that he had retracted his statement and that there was no need to continue with trial within trial to test the voluntariness or otherwise of the statement.

A retraction means to say that something you have said earlier is not true or correct or that you did not mean it. See Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary 6th Edition.

It is now well settled that the fact that an accused has retracted a confessional statement does not mean that the court cannot act upon it and rely on same to convict him. Ozana Ubiecho V. The State (2005) LPELR – 3283 (SC), (2005) 2 SC (Pt.1) 18, Edamine V. The State (1996) 3 NWLR (Pt.438) 530, Akpan V. The State (2001) LPELR – 383 (SC) (2001) 15 NWLR (Pt.737) 745.

In circumstances of a retraction of a confessional statement, this court held in Hassan V. The State (2001) LPELR – 1358 (SC) at pp. 12-13 that:-

“However, it is very usual for an accused person to retract, deny or resile during his trial in the court from the extra-judicial statement he had earlier made to the police immediately after the event giving rise to the charge or arraignment against him. In such cases, the law casts a duty on both the accused person who made the subsequent denial to impeach his earlier statement and on the trial judge who is to test the veracity or otherwise of such statement by testing it or comparing it with other facts and circumstances outside the statement or in order to see whether they support, confirm or correspond with the said statement which will then be regarded as correct. In other words, the statement will be subjected to scrutiny by the court in order to test its truthfulness or otherwise in line with other available evidence and circumstances of the case.” Also reported in (2001) 15 NWLR (Pt.735) 184.

In circumstances described above, there is no need to conduct a trial within trial.

The rule with respect to conducting a trial within a trial operates only in cases questioning the voluntariness or otherwise of confessions. It does not apply to questions of weight to be attached to admissible evidence admitted. The question of weight of evidence is always decided at the end of the trial in relation to the totality of the evidence adduced before the court. See Owie V. The State (1985) 4 SC (Pt.2) 1, (1985) LPELR – 2847 (SC), R. V. Nwigboke & Ors (1959) 4 FSC 101 at 102.

With due respect to the learned trial judge, the evidence of the appellant and his co-accused persons did not amount to a retraction. Rather, they challenged the voluntariness of the evidence extracted from them by the police under beatings and torture. The trial within trial begun by the trial court was in order but when it was called off midway into it and the subsequent admission of the statements in evidence, rendered the said alleged confessional statement irregular, inadmissible and unreliable. Having cast doubt on the voluntariness of the statement by the respondent herein, the learned trial judge ought to have allowed the trial within trial to reach its logical conclusion. The abrupt stoppage of the exercise, was, in my humble view, fatal to this case.

See also  Jeje Oladele & Ors V. Oba Adekunle Aromolaran II & Ors. (1996) LLJR-SC

One other issue which afflicted this case relates to the decision of the learned trial judge that the evidence of PW5 and the co-accused persons corroborated the alleged confessional statement of the respondent. Happily, the Lower Court shot down the said decision. The reason is not far-fetched. First, where an accused person makes a confessional statement as to his participation in a crime, he is not confessing for his accomplices. An accused person’s confession is only evidence against him and not against co-accused persons and it is a misdirection which may lead to the quashing of the conviction. However, a confessional statement of a co-accused can only be used against an accused person if he voluntarily adopts it. See Ozaki V. State (1990) LPELR – 2888 (SC), (1990) 1 NWLR (Pt.124) 92, Evbuomwan V. COP (1961) WNLR 257. In the instant case, the use of the statements of co-accused persons against the respondent without him adopting them as his, was unlawful and has a vitiating effect on his conviction by that court.

One more thing and I shall be done. The Lower Court had set aside the decision of the trial court that the evidence of PW5 and the statements of co-accused persons corroborated the alleged confessional statement of the respondent. In Nwauchi V. The State (1976) LPELR – 2103 (SC) at pp 12 – 13, this court per Obaseki, JSC (of blessed memory) held on the issue as follows:

“In a criminal trial, under English law, where a person who is an accomplice gives evidence on behalf of the prosecution, it is the duty of the judge to warn the jury that although they may convict on his evidence, it is dangerous to do so unless it is corroborated – (Danis V DPP (1954) AC 378 at 379). This rule, although a rule of practice now has the force of a rule of law, and where the judge fails to give due warning, the conviction will be quashed even if in fact there is ample corroboration unless the court applies the proviso to Section 216(1) of the Supreme Court Act. That is the law in Nigeria. (See Section 177(1) Evidence Act) (See Section 177(1) of the Evidence Law of Northern Nigeria Cap. 40 Vol 2 L/NN 1963)”.

Now, corroboration means or entails the acts of supporting or strengthening a statement of a witness by fresh evidence of another witness. In Sale Dagayya V. The State (2005) 7 NWLR (Pt.980) 637, this court held that corroboration does not mean that the witness corroborating must use the exact or very like words, unless the matter involves some arithmetics. In setting aside the decision of the trial court on this issue, the Lower Court held as follows:

“the mere fact that one accused said that other accused persons could be found at Offa and they were found there could not have any corroborative effect taking into consideration that for evidence to have any corroborative effect, it must be independent piece of evidence which not only discloses the commission of the offence but the accused must have committed the crime.”

I agree entirely with the above conclusion of the Lower Court. The evidence that is regarded as corroboration is clearly not a repetition of the evidence sought to be corroborated, otherwise, there will be no need for the original evidence. See Okadichi V. State (1975) NSCC 124. For a piece of evidence to be corroborative, it must be independent testimony which affects the accused by connecting him or tending to connect him with the crime. The evidence of PW5 in this case which was itself a repetition of the evidence of a co-accused, one Joshua John, could not by any stretch of imagination be taken as corroboration of the statement of the respondent. Maybe I need to add that the said evidence of PW5, by all intents and purpose, was hearsay. The court below was therefore on a sound wicket when it set aside the decision of the learned trial judge on this issue. This is much more so when the learned trial judge had held that the evidence of PW2, PW3, and PW4 contradicted the evidence of PW5. And to make the matter worse, PW5 was just a policeman who recorded the statement of the accused persons. Indeed he had nothing to corroborate the statement of the respondent in this case.

From all that I have said above, I hold a very strong view that the court below was right when it held as follows:

“In view of the foregoing, I am of the concluded view that the trial judge was in grave error to have relied heavily on Exhibits 3 and 4 the alleged confessional statement of the appellant in convicting him.”

There was indeed no evidence to infer conspiracy. I accordingly affirm the decision of the Court of Appeal which set aside the judgment of Kwara State High Court in this case. I also affirm the setting aside of the conviction and sentence of the respondent for 14 years imposed by the trial court. The order of discharge and acquittal of the respondent entered by the Lower Court is hereby upheld.

Appeal Dismissed.


SC.504/2012

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