Long walk to freedom: After 21 years of wrongful conviction, 60-year-old man reunites with family

Olusina Ajayi Olatinwo, who is over 60 years of age, recently got united with his family in Ibadan, after spending 21 years in different prisons across the South-West, on a wrongful conviction that led to a death sentence. YEJIDE GBENGA-OGUNDARE reports that it was a bitter-sweet experience for his family who had given up on seeing him alive as his daughter met him for the first time. His wife had died, and his father, Kareem Olatinwo, who was sentenced together with him did not make it out alive.

 

The month of May 1999 is one that will always bring bad memories to the entire Ajayi family in Olodo area of Ibadan. Indeed, it was a period they will never forget because that was when Olusina Ajayi and his father were incarcerated after being sentenced to death for an offence they never committed in a litigation process that moved from the High Court through the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court.

It was however, an emotional day when Olusina was taken home to reunite him with his family after being released from Kirikiri Prisons through the efforts of the Centre for Justice, Mercy and Reconciliation (CJMR) led by Pastor Hezekiah Olujobi, who facilitated his release through a state pardon granted by Governor Seyi Makinde.

Olusina and his mother.

His mother who is in her late 80’s could not control her tears when she saw the son she had been forced to give up to death without his father after 21 years. She stated that her son who was convicted of robbery was an obedient child who never engaged in any criminal activity and was a focused young man.

For Oluwasina, his emotion was a roller coaster as his joy at being freed was smeared with too many intense feelings. He stated that his wife just gave birth and his daughter was just three months when he was wrongfully accused and subsequently spent 21 years on death row for an offence he never committed.

He stated that he is still confused because he doesn’t understand how he was arrested for an offence he knew nothing about and condemned to death alongside his innocent father.

His 21-year travail was filled with up and downs as concerted efforts during his incarceration led to his sentence being converted to life imprisonment from death.

In the course of his incarceration, he was an inmate at the Federal prison, Abeokuta, Agodi and the Kirikiri Custodial Centres. Unfortunately, in the long process of seeking to prove their innocence and regain freedom, he lost his father while they were at the Agodi prison. And while he was happy to meet his daughter who was three months old when he left as an adult, he unfortunately came home to find out that his wife had died leaving their only daughter to his aged mother to cater for.

Tracing the root of his problem, he said it started with an issue of some people taking over the property of his father. CJMR investigations also revealed that Olusina and his father were the victims of the armed robbery that took place in their community but because some people mentioned their names, they were arrested. And all efforts to prove his innocence failed.

Sunday Abioye, who said Olusina is his uncle, said his uncle’s case was simply one of conspiracy over landed property that the family had and Olusina himself also traced the root of his problem to an issue of some people taking over the property of his father. For him, the journey from Kirikiri prison to Ibadan was a tearful one and getting home, the news was also not better; the family was attacked in the absence of his father and himself, his father’s house was sold by people who never expected he would ever come out alive.

His walk to freedom was not an easy one as it took CJMR over a decade to get the desired result having taken over his matter in 2007 when the family asked CJMR to intervene in the matter and get justice for Kareem Olatinwo and Olushina Ajayi Olatinwo with two other people; Olusola Oyeleye and Ganiyu Busari, who were all sentenced to death over allegations of armed robbery.

They were sentenced to death over an armed robbery that took place in their community in which they were also victims. CJMR as a young organization of eight years could do little when the case first came to its notice but the founder, Pastor Olujobi, travelled to the village for independent investigations.

He spoke to the Nigerian Tribune on his findings: “When we got to the village, I was shown his house which was already razed. I went to the next village to confirm if they were robbed and they confirmed the robbery. We applied for the judgment of the High Court which convicted them to death. The evaluation of that judgment from the layman’s point of view did not agree with the natural sense of reasoning.

He explained that he discovered that about 2.00 a m on the day of the incident, there was a robbery attack on the house of Olusina’s father at Oke Omi village, Olodo Ibadan. His father was matcheted on the head and many of them were wounded, including Olusina. The father was left in a pool of blood and the following morning, he went to the police station at Iyana Ofa to report the matter. While at the station he met a Hausa man in the station who did not understand Yoruba and he did not understand English, so he was asked to wait till a Yoruba police officer came.

He stated further that the police officer eventually came as he was reporting the case when other men from the nearby village also came to lodge a similar complaint who immediately pointed at him as one of the culprits. He said:  The police officers team led him to arrest his father, the neighbors also arrested his brother and a sister. He also explained how police arrested the two laborers working with his father in a fish pound and detained all of them at Iyana Offa Police Station for three weeks before they were moved to the Special Anti-Robbery squad SARS, Dugbe, Ibadan.

“The complaint against them was that the old man, including his three children with his laborers robbed some villagers in the same neighborhood. They claimed they identified all of them because they did not wear masks. At the police station, SARS Dugbe, the police released the young girl and charged the man and his two children, including a 15-year-old boy, to court along with the two laborers working with the man.”

However, the Ministry of Justice, legal advice exonerated the boy because he was underage. After the trial that lasted three years, they were sentenced to death on June 28, 2002 by the High Court of Justice, Ibadan, though they had been in custody since their arrest. His father appealed the judgment for the two of them up to the Supreme Court, but it failed.

The other two charged along with Olusina and his father however got lucky in 2008 when a lawyer took up their case, pro-bono, and the Appeal Court on April 13, 2013 nullified the judgment of the lower Court, discharged and acquitted them while they were all on death row in Abeokuta.

At the time of the incident, Olusina’s father was over 70 years old. This made the Appeal Court judge note some facts when he said “Could it be possible that the robbers who included a man of over 70 years of age were chased for a distance of about a kilometer and all of them escaped? I find this unbelievable.  Even if all the robbers outran those pursing them in all of one kilometer, surely not a man of over 70 years, no matter how agile. I think that in the face of the above, the evaluation of the evidence by the trial court was quite erroneous, and as such this court is at liberty to interfere with it. But very unfortunate the old man was not the appellant in this case.

“I have had the privilege of reading in draft the judgment just delivered by my learned brother, M.B. Dongban-Mensem JCA. I agree with the conclusion reached. The main issue in this appeal is whether the prosecution proved the offences of conspiracy and armed robbery against the appellants beyond reasonable doubt. After going through the Record of Appeal, I think that there is a lot of doubt about the appellants having committed the offences for which they were charged, convicted and sentenced to death. The evidence on record against the appellants are in my view full of conflicts, contradictions and gaps,” Justice Obietonbara Daniel-Kalio, J.C.A had held in his ruling discharging the other two men.

Armed with this judgment, Pastor Olujobi and his team began the journey of freedom afresh for Olusina. In July, 2013, they pushed the judgment to the then Attorney-General but nothing happened. They repeated the process in 2014 and in December 2014, Olusina Ajayi’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Unfortunately, on September 15, 2015, the old man died in prison.  In 2017, the matter was pushed forward again by CJMR and the governor commuted the life imprisonment to 30 years’ imprisonment.

Going by calculation of that 30 years imprisonment, Olusina Ajayi will complete his sentence on 28 June, 2022. But, CJMR refused to give up. When the incumbent administration came into office, it brought up the matter again for review based on the facts that if the Court of Appeal ruled that the lower court was wrong, then it is wrong for Olusina Ajayi to continue serving jail term over a crime he did not commit and Governor Seyi Makinde ordered his immediate release.

Olusina is free, but his tears are not about to dry for a long while for many reasons. He had lost his father, his wife died as a result of the beating she got when arrested, his father’s younger wife also died as a result of the trauma, one of his brothers died in a car accident while running around for their freedom, his daughter couldn’t recognise him and the future ahead is bleak.

The aged mother lamented the injustice meted to her family just because some people wanted her husband’s property. What Olusina met after is freedom has proved that rehabilitation is going to be a long course. A visit to Oke Omi where the incident occurred 21 years ago revealed the trauma and uphill task ahead. Olusina and his family members were able to identify their father’s properties which have now been taken over and sold to end-users.

On the site of their house which was burnt after they had been arrested by the police now stands a mosque and a Qur’anic school. The Islamic cleric acknowledged that the property was sold to him by certain people who are all dead now, and that the land is said to originally belong to someone who was referred to as Olusina’s father.

The cleric said, “I was told by the head of Oganla family that the owner of the house had been sentenced to death by the government. The land was sold to me at 100,000 in 2006. I am a sojourner here as a missionary. I don’t know much about the history of the land.”

What now becomes the fate of Olusina after it has been proved that he was a victim of wrongful conviction? Would there be compensation? Does he deserve any compensation? Where does he start life from again?

Pastor Olujobi who thanked Governor Makinde for critically looking into the case added that, “There are many obstacles ahead of Olusina Ajayi and to navigate such obstacles requires the support of the government and well-meaning Nigerians.”

 

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