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When confessional statements may not lead to conviction

Several times people make confessional statements about the commission of offences during a pre-trial investigation which turn out not enough evidence to convict them. Lawyers…

Several times people make confessional statements about the commission of offences during a pre-trial investigation which turn out not enough evidence to convict them.

Lawyers say the requirements for proving criminal cases in court are rigorous and sometimes weigh in favour of the defendant due to the country’s adversarial system as against the inquisitorial system practised in most countries colonised by France, which makes the defendant to prove their innocence.

Section 27(1) of the Law of Evidence 2010 states that confession is “an admission made at any time by a person charged with a crime, stating or suggesting the inference that he committed that crime.”

Sub-section 2 states that: “Confession, if voluntary, are deemed to be relevant facts as against the persons who make them orally.”

Confessional statements, alongside witness testimonies and circumstantial evidence, are important elements for a criminal conviction. 

However, the law provides for conditions in which a confessional statement may be dispensed with by the court.

Section 28 reads: “A confession made by an accused person is irrelevant in a criminal proceeding, if the making of the confession appears to the court to have been caused by any inducement, threat or promise to having reference to the charge against the accused person, proceeding from a person in authority and sufficient, in the opinion of the court, to give the accused person grounds which would appear to him reasonable for supposing that by making it he would gain any advantage or avoid any evil of a temporal nature.”

Although judges have relied on this provision in the Evidence Act to question the voluntariness of a confessional statement, the provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015 intend that such doubt shall not cause the delay of a criminal trial but could be cited in the final determination of the matter.

Also, the provision of Section 15 of the ACJA on the electronic recording of statements has made it difficult for defendants to deny statements they made.

Sub-section 4 provides that: “Where a suspect who is arrested with or without warrant volunteers to make a confessional statement, the police officer shall ensure that the making and taking of the statement shall be in writing and may be recorded electronically on a retrievable video compact disc or such other audio-visual means.”

Lawyers say police parading suspects who also speak to the media, admitting offences, amounts to a violation of their fundamental rights, as sometimes the offences are not proven in court.

Where defendants accuse the police of torture in the course of statement-taking, judges usually order trial-within-trial to determine the voluntariness of the confessional statement.

Speaking during a law dialogue last year, Justice Danlami Senchi, formerly of the FCT High Court, said, “Where inadmissible evidence is received or admitted in evidence by a court, such court has the power, and duty, to treat such inadmissible evidence as if it had been admitted, i.e. expunge it from the records even when no objection had been raised to its admissibility (Hashidu v. Goje (2003) LPELR-10310 (CA).” 

In his contribution, Ali Zubairu Esq attributed the practice of weighing evidence in a criminal trial in favour of the defendant, where there is doubt about the mode it was obtained to the country’s adversarial system of criminal justice “where the defendant is presumed innocent until the contrary is proved.”

Zubairu added that, “It is a constitutional provisional provision in Section 36 of the Nigerian Constitution of 1999. So, the burden of proof is on the prosecution, and until the prosecution discharges that burden, the defendant will be discharged and acquitted.”

He, however, said, “A defendant can be convicted on his confessional statement alone in so far the confessional statement was made voluntarily.”

In the same vein, a member of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Kevin A. Mejulu Esq, submitted that the law tried to strike a balance between the prosecution, the defence and the victim in criminal proceedings.

Mejulu said, “There is no law that says that confessional statement is not sufficient to secure a conviction. Where a confessional statement has been proven to be voluntarily obtained, that confessional statement alone can ground a conviction.

“Where a confessional statement is retracted, the court can convict on it, but it has to warn itself and also find other corroborative evidence before convicting.

“Where the confessional statement is proven to have been obtained involuntarily, such a confessional statement will not be admissible in law and so the court cannot act on it.”

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