It is a clear position of law under the criminal procedure in Nigeria that the accused /defendant upon the arraignment and after the charge brought against him/her is read in the language he/she understands, that he or she must plea either guilty or not guilty to the said charge.
This paper attempts to consider the situation whereby an accused /defendant while taking his/her plea, pleads guilty to any offence.
To bring it down to the level of a well-educated person (layman) outside the legal profession, the term “plea of guilty ” means admission of guilt, i.e., the accused /defendant voluntarily admits that he/she actually committed the offences contain in a charge.
Having briefly explain the term “plea of guilty “, let’s consider section 356(1) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015 which provides thus: ”At the commencement of the hearing, the court shall state, or cause to be stated to the defendant, the substance of the complaint, and shall ask him whether he is guilty or not guilty.. ”
The import of the above provision is that, the trial court is under obligation to read the charge to the hearing of the defendant and after being clearly read and understood, then the court would go ahead and ask the defendant to take his/her plea.
In this paper, we are much concerned about where the defendant chooses to plead guilty — whether or not plea of guilty is enough to warrant the conviction without court taking any other steps.
At this juncture, it is paramount to note that, despite the fact that the choice of pleading guilty or not guilty resides in the defendant’s mind, it is equally not allowed for the defendant to plead guilty in a capital offence and where he/she does so, court would record not guilty for him/her
There are procedural steps to be taken immediately the defendant pleads guilty as stated in the case of SUMANYA ISSAHTORRI V. THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE OF NIGERIA (2008)LPELR – 8475 (CA). In this case, the court held :
” The requirement of the law before there could be a conviction on a plea of guilty are;
1- The court must be satisfied that the accused person understands the charge against him;
2- The court must be seize of the fact alleged by the prosecution as constituting the offence charged;
3- The court must ask the accused if he admits all facts alleged by the prosecution;
4- The court must be satisfied that the accused intends to admit the commission of the offence charged; and
5- The facts stated by the prosecution and admitted by the accused must be able to sustain the charge against the accused.
These are what law requires to be done before the conviction. Presently, there is a legal argument as to whether the prosecution still has a burden placed on him to prove his case against the defendant who has already pleaded guilty as required under section 135 (1)& (2) of Evidence Act and also whether the accused person who pleaded guilty is still under the umbrella of section 36(5) of the Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) which presumes an accused person to remain innocent until he is proven guilty.
With careful look at the case cited above which listed out what the court is required to do before conviction , the prosecution is not required to prove his case beyond reasonable doubt once the accused person has already admitted that he/she actually committed the offence rather he is required to supply or present and summarize the facts of the case i.e ingriedents of the offence charged and urge the court to convict the accused person .
As to section 36(5) of the constitution, this provision is far away from any ambiguity except if a person willfully turns his blind eyes at its import. Once the accused who is presumed innocent voluntarily tells the court that he is guilty of the offence filed against him, no need for further proof.
Generally, It is trite that the accused person must understand the charge before taking his/ her plea without which renders the trial void. But once the charge is read and understood by the defendant and decided to plead guilty to the charge, such plea of guilty qualifies for conviction without more.
It was decided and established in JOHN TIMOTHY V. FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA (2012)LPELR – 9346 (SC) that a voluntary confession or/and a plea of guilty is the best evidence to rely on to convict an accused person.
In line with above authority, the writer is of the view that a plea of guilty to a charge after being read and interpreted if there’s a need for that in the language of the accused and which the accused claims to understand, it relieves the prosecutor of the duty of proving his case beyond the reasonable doubt. The reader is also directed to the case of OSUAGWU V. STATE (2009)1NWLR (pt.1123)523
The truth should not be buried as to the fact that, extra-judicial and judicial confessions can be treated in the same way provided that both are voluntarily obtained.
Plea of guilty may not be a conclusive proof even after all requirements of the law have been fulfilled, such as where the offence to which the accused has pleaded guilty can only be constituted by expert evidence, in this, the evidence must be tendered before the accused is convicted on his plea. (See AYO OMOJU vs FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA (2008)7 NWLR (pt. 1085)35 ).
In any other case different from where an expert opinion is required to establish the case, the law sees calling on the prosecution to prove his case as what is desirable.
The argument is that, whether “desirability ” as stated in the case of RABIU vs STATE (2005)7 NWLR (pt. 925)491 implies ” compulsory”.
The writer is of the view that, although “desirability” cannot be interpreted to mean “compulsory” and agree that once the court is satisfied of the voluntariness of the accused to plead guilty and this is direct and positive, the court may proceed to convict the accused. (See the case of BAALO vs FRN (2016).
The writer will like to add that the essence of the desirability of asking the prosecutor to slightly prove his case since he has already been relieved and the burden of proof placed on him becomes light, is to clear any doubt( if any)and to establish the truthfulness of the matter.
Let us consider the requirements mentioned in the case of SUMANYA ISSAH TORRI (supra) together with section 218 Criminal Procedure Act which provides that :
“If an Accused pleads guilty to any offence with which he was charge, the court shall record his plea as nearly as possible in the words used by him and if satisfied that he intends to admit the truth of all essential of the offence of which he has pleaded guilty the court shall convict him of that offence and pass sentence upon or make an order against him unless there shall appear sufficient cause to the contrary ”
The word ” satisfaction ” in this section means if the court is satisfied, not if the accused person is satisfied . This draws another line of argument as to the fact that whether the court can be satisfied without the accused being satisfied with the reading of charge.
It is humbly opined that, satisfaction of the court cannot be achieved except the satisfaction of the accused exists. Where the accused person is not represented by a legal practitioner and he has not admitted to personally represent himself except in a capital offence as provided under section 36 (6) of The Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, no one can safely say that the accused /defendant clearly understands the charge read to him which would establish the satisfaction of the court .
It is further submitted that, if court interprets the provision of section 218 of CPA as to only the satisfaction of court, what would be the take of the accused person who seems to understand the charge but not?
It was pointed out by a learned judge, Justice Oputa that Justice is not a one way traffic but a three way: justice for the state, the accused and the victim.
In conclusion, how can a judge measure and determine that the accused knows the import of pleading guilty to the charge and how the requirements of law perfectly fulfilled as stated above before jumping to the conviction? A mere plea of guilty cannot be considered as first and last evidence which can validly warrant the conviction.
I appreciate the position of law which says that even if the accused person pleads guilty in a capital offence, the court should record not guilty for him and go into proper trial and at the same time urge the judiciary to attach more value to desirability of proving a case even if it would not go to the extent as it is required in a circumstance where an accused person pleads not guilty .
By: Y.A, Usman Esq (Ar-rohees)