Suicide or murder? Death in custody a mystery on the rise

Saturday September 8 2018

Post-mortem results on Monday showed Mwai died of hanging.

A photo of Parklands police station taken on September 1, 2018. A suspect, Mr David Mwai, died in one of the cells. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 


  • John Kibowen Cheboiwo, the man who had impersonated IG Boinnet, had been remanded at Industrial Area Prison for five weeks when he died suddenly in June.
  • The cryptic death of British aristocrat Alexander Monson in police custody at Diani in Kwale County in 2012 has been an ongoing case in a Mombasa court for three years now.


That David Mwai, the main suspect in the attempted murder of Mr Idris Mukhtar, would die before his target must have seemed outright ridiculous — if this ever occurred to him.

His mission was direct and clear when he walked to the parking lot of a restaurant at Kileleshwa in Nairobi on the evening of Sunday, August 19: Pump bullets into his target, flee and later collect the reward befitting a hitman of his nerve.

But from the moment his gun jammed; CCTV cameras captured the drama; and the victim defied death, the gunslinger’s world came tumbling down in the most astonishing fashion.

His fate would take a sharp turn and today, the suspected assailant’s body is lying cold at the mortuary following his death last week at Parklands Police Station where he had been detained.

Meanwhile, his target recuperates at the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at Nairobi Hospital.

Mr Mwai’s death revived the contentious debate on death in custody, and triggered unsettling questions on whether the suspect actually killed himself as the police claim, or if this was a case of elimination.


Death in custody involves an inmate dying at a correctional facility such as a prison or in an ordinary hospital or a psychiatric centre. These incidents are common, especially in maximum security prisons.

In Kenya, such deaths are not uncommon, except cases have been on a surge in the past few years.

This year alone five murder/assault suspects have died in the hands of the police.

But why and how an inmate, suspect or patient ends up leaving custody in a body bag is a complex subject enmeshed in a tangle of structural challenges, negligence, cover-up and dangerous feuds.

Naturally, a suspect of a high profile crime such as this (Mukhtar is a former Garissa County finance official) is a person of enormous interest to the state, accomplices and foes alike.

Such suspects are, in most cases, kept under close surveillance of armed police officers round the clock.


What is puzzling though is how the suspect used his jacket to hang himself under the watch of both security officers and his cellmates on a corridor.

Two weeks ago, another murder suspect, Marjanein Indahaso, died in custody, only this time it was in a hospital. Again, authorities were quick to cite suicide.

The story of Indahaso, 24, is a heart-rending tale of a psychopath who had committed perhaps the freakiest crime.

The former student of Strathmore University is believed to have killed his niece in 2016 in Nairobi’s High View Estate.

The bloodthirsty youth then split the skull of his three-year-old victim and drank her blood in a rather sadistic and cult like spectre of crudeness.

The student was arrested and charged in court with the murder and later remanded at Kamiti Maximum Prison pending trial. But not even the high-security facility would accommodate him.

“We took him to Mathari Mental Hospital when he developed psychiatric problems where he was admitted,” Mr Stephen Ngugi, an administrator at Kamiti, said.

The decision to transfer the suspect to the hospital would turn out to be his death sentence.

He ‘committed suicide’ shortly after his admission to the hospital. “He was found hanging in the ward,” Mr Ngugi said.


Whether the suspect was under the watch of hospital attendants and whether he actually hanged himself as authorities claim is as mysterious as it is suspect.


Meanwhile, the hospital has declined to issue any statement on the events surrounding the death of their patient. Indahaso’s death also effectively ended the murder case against him.

John Kibowen Cheboiwo, the man who had impersonated Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinnet, had been remanded at Industrial Area Prison for five weeks when he died suddenly in June. A post-mortem of his body failed to show “any definite cause of death”.

“I was told the body had been taken to City Mortuary. I went there and found it. The records there indicated ‘sudden death,'” his mother Jane Anyango said at the time.

Commissioner of Prisons Isaiah Osugo denied the suspect had died at the prison, saying he died at Kenyatta National Hospital. The matter is still under investigation.

Walter Masakhwe was hoping to find justice when he went to report a burglary at his shop to Butere Police Station in July.

But in a tragic turn of events, the father of nine was locked up in a cell for beating up the suspected burglar.

He later succumbed to “diverse complications”, according to the police.


Police claimed Masakhwe attempted suicide by ingesting pesticide, yet how he accessed the chemical while in police custody is a mystery. An autopsy would later void the police account.

“The examination showed my brother was assaulted with a metal rod in the cell. He had injuries all over his body.

"We still do not know who assaulted him or reasons behind it. We are unsure if we will ever find out what transpired during his detention,” his brother Isaiah Omulama told the Nation.

When the victim was taken to Kakamega County Teaching and Referral Hospital for treatment, the family was barred from visiting him, compounding suspicions of foul play.

The family would later be asked to collect Masakhwe’s body from the hospital’s mortuary.

Two months later, detectives in Kakamega County have yet to draw solid trails for the suspicious death.


Elsewhere, the cryptic death of British aristocrat Alexander Monson in police custody at Diani in Kwale County in 2012 has been an ongoing case in a Mombasa court for three years now.

Three police officers suspected to have killed Monson have persistently claimed that the 28-year-old Brit died after an overdose of the drug ketamine.

Senior principal magistrate Richard Odenyo however ruled that Monson’s death was neither natural nor caused by use of drugs.

The suspects, Naftali Chege, Charles Wang’ombe and Ishmael Baraka denied the murder charges against them before Judge Erick Ogolla in Mombasa. Their trial has not started.

Pressure from the civil society groups last week compelled National Police Spokesperson Charles Owino to invite journalists for a tour of the cells at Parklands Police Station where Mwai died.


One critical observation made by journalists was that the corridor where Mwai allegedly committed suicide is not fitted with CCTV cameras, meaning there is no video record to back up claims the suspect hanged himself.

But while it is possible Mwai may have committed suicide, questions linger on how much time he had to execute his plan on the communal corridor.

Post-mortem results on Monday showed Mwai died of hanging. Whether this was a case of suicide or homicide is now a subject of inquiry by detectives.

Even as investigations into the latest incident gather steam, the country waits to see if detectives will unpack this mysterious death, or if it will end up in a bulging stack of unresolved sagas of death in custody.

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