Saturday, October 15, 2011

How a night of merriment turned into death sentence

Alexander Chepkonga (left) and former police Inspector Dickson Munene in a Nairobi court on October 12, 2011. They were sentenced to death for murdering Dr James Muiruri in 2009. Photo/PAUL WAWERU

Photo/PAUL WAWERU/NATION Alexander Chepkonga (left) and former police Inspector Dickson Munene in a Nairobi court on October 12, 2011. They were sentenced to death for murdering Dr James Muiruri in 2009.  

By KIPCHUMBA SOME [email protected]

The two young murder convicts looked supremely indifferent and oblivious of all that was going on around them: one played with a black pen and the other blankly stared into space, precisely the white ceiling of the court.

Yet the stakes could not have been higher for them. The setting was the Milimani law courts and the occasion was the sentencing of Alexander Chepkonga and former policeman Dickson Munene who had been found guilty of the 2009 murder of Dr James Muiruri, the son of former Gatundu North MP Patrick Muiruri. (READ: Two sentenced to death for murder)

They were the reason that the Milimani commercial court number 18 had been filled to capacity last Wednesday.

Friends and relatives of all involved conversed in low tones creating a low hum of perhaps 200 people gathered in the tiny court room.

The two convicts seemed lost in their own thoughts. Chepkonga, dressed in a stripped white shirt and a black sweater, played with a black biro pen and occasionally chatted with his sister, Vicky, who stood beside him throughout the ruling.

Munene, dressed in a white shirt and a black blazer sat pensively lost in a gaze upwards. He made little conversation.

A prison warder leaned across him, idly tapping the wooden finishing of the dock in which the two were held.

The question was not whether they were guilty or not; that had been decided by trial judge Mohammed Warsame exactly a week before.  

The life and death question in the minds of those gathered was what kind of a sentence Justice Warsame was going to mete out to the two.
Seated in the front row of the court room, behind the lawyers, was the father of the deceased, Mr Muiruri, holding hands with his wife Rachel. In the second row were the families and friends of the convicts.

They were mostly quiet. Six pastors clad in black shirts listened carefully at different places in the court room. They were from different denominations and were here on invitation of Mr Muiruri’s family to offer support.

At 2.35 p.m., Justice Warsame entered his chambers and the court fell into silence. The court orderly handed him a thick file, containing the details of the case and the sentence he had just written by hand.

Journalists trained their cameras on him. For the next 12 minutes in which he read his sentence, those present hang on to every word that came from his mouth.

Chepkonga looked down and continued fiddling with the black pen. His co-convict Munene stared into space, lost in his own thoughts.

For more than 10 minutes, Justice Warsame carefully laid out the grounds for the sentence he was about to make.

Soon the words everyone had been waiting for came: “Consequently, I sentence the two accused persons to suffer death as prescribed by law.”

Muted clapping arose from the front bench where the Muiruris were seated. Mrs Chepkonga stared straight at the judge betraying no emotion.

Beyond expression

Chepkonga continued playing with his pen and Munene continued looking up indifferently.

Perhaps they expected it, perhaps they were shocked beyond expression. Only they know what was running through their minds at that moment.

Whatever the case, their reactions can never hide the fact that the sentence is a devastating blow for them all. But how did it all begin?

The fateful events leading to this week’s dramatic sentencing of the two young men began on the morning of Saturday, February 24, 2009, around 6 a.m.

At that time, two groups of revellers were winding up a nightlong drinking spree at Crooked Q, a restaurant situated in Westlands.

Located on Woodvale Grove, the bar is just one among a number of high-end watering holes in the area favoured by the affluent and the middle class.

One group comprised of Dr James Ng’ang’a Muiruri’ his brother John Gachera Muiruri and a neighbour, Ms Jedidah Okudo, 25, a student in Germany who was home for the holidays.

Dr Muiruri, 29, was fresh from completing his post-graduate studies from Sheffield University, United Kingdom. On a nearby table sat five young men, between the ages of 24 and 33 and all from affluent backgrounds.  

One was a trained pilot yet to find employment, another was an information technology consultant for the National Defence College.  

Alexander Francis Chepkonga, 25, had just completed a Bachelor of Economics degree at the University of Nairobi and was waiting to graduate that December.

In the meantime, he had started a sanitation company, Lock Raid, which was based in Kileleshwa. His friend, police inspector Dickson Munene, 28, who worked with the Quick Response Team, was outside the club in his car.

He was stationed in Kilimani police station and that day he was on duty around Capitol Hill. He did not enter the Crooked Q bar since he was tired, he said in his statement.

The previous evening at 7 p.m., he had joined Chepkonga for drinks at his house in Kileleshwa.

At around 1.30 a.m., the party moved to the popular Florida nightclub along Koinange Street. At around 4 a.m., the revellers decided to wind up their partying in Westlands.

The party settled on Crooked Q. Statements from witnesses indicate that the events that set in motion the tragedy that was to follow started in the manner that all big things start — small.

Sometime at six o’clock, Dr Muiruri and a member of the group of five young men known as Tish agreed to play a game of pool.

In her testimony, the pool attendant at the club, Ms Elizabeth Wambui, says that Tish declined a suggestion by Dr Muiruri for a “beer game” — an agreement whereby the loser buys the winner a beer.

Tish insisted on playing a normal game where the loser only pays for the game.

Unsavoury words

In the course of the game, it seems the two got into some sort of disagreement and started hurling unsavoury words at one another — Dr Muiruri called Tish and another friend a dog and gay respectively and told them they were so poor that they could not afford a beer game.

The two responded in kind, telling Dr Muiruri that the only expensive thing he owned was the pair of shoes he had on. And from there it went downhill a road that none of them imagined would have catastrophic consequences.

In time friends from both sides intervened, resulting in escalation of the war of words which subsequently resulted in a brawl.

Bodies were shoved and punches were thrown, attracting the attention of the bouncers who promptly kicked out Chepkonga’s group.

The group went downstairs and waited for Dr Muiruri’s party to come down. Sensing more problems ahead, Dr Muiruri requested bouncers to escort him out of the club to prevent the breakout of another altercation.

It did not help much. Emotions ran high and were apparently fuelled by the night-long bingeing.  

Another brawl broke out outside the club. As bouncers restrained them, a punch thrown by Dr Muiruri hit Chepkonga on the face.

At that point, Chepkonga alerted his friend Munene about the altercation he and his friends had gotten into and the people who had offended them. In his testimony, Munene says he witnessed Dr Muiruri punch Chepkonga.

After being separated, with bouncers holding back Chepkonga from retaliating further, Dr Muiruri got into his car and with his brother on the wheel, set out towards the Sarit Centre roundabout, a distance of 300 metres from the club.

Ms Okudo, who said she was assaulted by Chepkonga’s group in the initial altercation in the club followed them closely behind in her car.

Since he had witnessed an offense take place in his presence, Munene gave chase in his car to arrest Dr Muiruri as required of him by law.

A few minutes later Chepkonga followed him in a silver Mercedes belonging to a friend, Mr Mark Sagini. Munene raced ahead and blocked Dr Muiruri’s car from the front just as it was about to enter the roundabout and came out with handcuffs.

Mr Gachera tried to reverse the car but found they had been blocked by another car driven by Chepkonga.

Dr Muiruri stepped out of the car and a fresh round of war of words between him and Munene ensued. It did not last long.

According to Mr Gachera and Ms Okudo, Munene threw the handcuffs at Dr Muiruri and told him to handcuff himself.

In protest of his innocence, Dr Muiruri declined upon which they say the former police inspector fired three shots.Two shots pierced through Dr Muiruri’s heart and a third went through the mouth, shattering the jaw.

But according to Munene, Dr Muiruri violently resisted attempts to arrest him and instead tried to snatch the handcuffs.

In the process, he tried to secure his gun, which was holstered at the waist. In the struggle that ensued three bullets accidentally discharged from his Belgium made Browning pistol killing Dr Muiruri.

Seeing that the group that had gathered to witness the incident getting belligerent, and since they thought he was a thief, Munene says he drove off and informed his superiors of the incident.

He reported at Buru Buru police station and was disarmed. As the shots rung out, Chepkonga says he entered his car and drove off in panic.

He picked up his two friends he had left outside the Crooked Q club, explained to them what happened, was dropped home and went to sleep.

Dr Muiruri was rushed to the MP Shah hospital by his brother and Ms Okudo where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

And with that began a gripping trial whose outcome has pricked the nation’s consciousness about the place of the death penalty as a form of punishment in the modern society.

In his ruling, Justice Warsame concluded the two had a common intention to kill Dr Muiruri as result of the differences they had — Chepkonga as the instigator and Munene as the executor.

“As the accused persons were acting in concert pursuing a common design and unjustifiably and unlawfully justified their goal, it matters not that Chepkonga was not armed and did not fire the bullets that resulted in the death of the deceased,” ruled Justice Warasme.

“It is also clear in my mind that it is Chepkonga who put in motion the events leading to the death of the deceased. He alerted his friend who purported to arrest the deceased without establishing whether it was possible to do so.”

He further faulted Munene for using excessive force to apprehend Dr Muiruri for what he concluded was a minor crime and for acting unprofessionally in effecting the attempted arrest.  

“It was absolutely unnecessary for Munene to follow the deceased with a view to arresting him when he had committed a minor offence,” ruled Justice Warsame.

“A police officer who attempts to arrest any offender must be sharp, alert and efficient in his arrest.”

“Had Munene regarded and/or approached the situation more calmly, had he not answered the concerns of Chepkonga, he would not have followed the deceased whom he termed as aggressive,” he added. He then ruled that both should die.

Wednesday, October 12, began as a chilly morning in the City in the Sun, but by afternoon, the October clouds had given way to a warm sunshine.

The weather that day could have been fittingly symbolic in many ways to the feelings families of the affected at that time.

For the Muiruri’s it signaled the end of a torturous two-year journey to find justice for their son. But for the families of the convicts it definitely signalled the darkening of clouds over their sons heads and more sorrow for them.

But that did not reflect at all in the manner the two convicts took their sentencing. As family and relatives gathered around them, they smiled warmly, hugging and patting all who had supported them through. Not a tear was shed.

At around 4 p.m., Chepkonga and Munene were led away by prison officers to begin life, not as suspects as they have been for the past two years they have been behind bars, but as death row convicts waiting for the hangman’s noose.

Outside the courtroom groups formed — those around the Muiruri family, congratulating them for “securing justice of our son who was slain like a Mungiki suspect and not as a learned lawyer”, as the family patriarch put it.

On the other side friends and family of the two convicts congregated separately, talking in low tones, consoling one another for the promising life of two young men, disrupted.

In the car park of the court, Mrs Chepkonga, wiping a tear resolutely termed the sentencing a “travesty of justice.”Their lawyer Philip Murgor said he is working on an appeal.

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