The Court of Appeal in Lagos, Friday, upheld the death sentence handed to Chukwuemeka Ezeugo, also known as Reverend King, of the Christian Praying Assembly.
In a unanimous judgment delivered by Fatima Akinbami, the court held that the evidence of the prosecution, during the trial, was “overwhelming and damning” and proved beyond reasonable doubt that he committed the crimes he was arraigned for.
Mr. Ezeugo, the church’s General Overseer, was condemned to death by Justice Joseph Oyewole of a Lagos High Court, in 2007, for murder of a church member.
“The judgment on 11th January 2007 is hereby affirmed,” said Mrs. Akinbami, who headed the three man panel of judges.
In a two hour long ruling, Ms. Akinbami said that after “painstakingly and meticulously” looking into the judgment of the lower court; she discovered that Mr. Ezeugo, rather than protecting and guiding his followers, resorted to setting them ablaze.
“I must state that the conduct of the appellant (Mr. Ezeugo) was indeed sad and unfortunate,” Ms. Akinbami said.
“Instead of offering his followers’ bread, he gave them stone. When they demanded for fish, he gave them scorpion,” she added.
Mr. Ezeugo was arraigned on a six-count charge of attempted murder of six church members and murder of one.
Following allegations of misconduct including fornication, the victims were made to kneel down before the pastor, who directed that fuel be poured on them.
Mr. Ezeugo stuck a match, setting all six ablaze.
While Chiejina Olise, Chizoba Onuorah, Vivian Ezeocha, Jessica Nwene, Kosisochukwu Ezenwankwo sustained serious burns; Ann Uzor did not survive.
Doctors said that Ms. Uzor died of Hypovolemic shock – an emergency condition in which severe blood and fluid loss make the heart unable to pump enough blood.
The judges said that the testimonies of the witnesses painted a “dastardly and nefarious” role by Mr. Ezeugo on July 22, 2006.
Mr. Oyewole, the trial judge, had found the cleric guilty on the first five counts of attempted murder and sentenced him to 20 years with hard labour on each count.
The sentences were to run concurrently.
But on the sixth count of murder, Mr. Oyewole sentenced the defendant to death by hanging.
On June 10, 2008, the Court of Appeal granted Mr. Ezeugo leave to file an appeal over his sentencing.
‘I’m not guilty’
In his appeal, Mr. Ezeugo raised concerns about the admissibility of some of the exhibits of the prosecution.
“The burnt injuries were from a generator accident and the appellant was not responsible for the said injuries,” Olalekan Ojo, Mr. Ezeugo’s lawyer, stated in his appeal.
He also stated that Mr. Ezeugo was in his bedroom and only rushed out when he heard cries of the victims.
Mr. Ojo maintained that the prosecution did not prove their case beyond reasonable doubt as their witnesses had given conflicting accounts of the incident.
In their accounts of the night’s event, one of the witnesses said that after the fuel was poured on them, Mr. Ezeugo struck the match.
However, another witness said that the match box was brought to the pastor after his lighter failed.
Ms. Akinbami said that whether the match was struck straightaway or after the lighter failed was immaterial.
“It is not every contradiction in the prosecution that will raise a doubt. For a contradiction to be material, it must lead to a miscarriage of justice,” the judge said.
Reacting to the judgment, Olabisi Ogungbesan, the prosecution counsel, said that it would serve as deterrence to other “so-called men of God who go about abusing their followers.”
“There was no miscarriage of justice by the trial court and all the grounds of appeal were found to be misconceived,” said Mrs. Ogungbesan, the Director of Public Prosecution, Lagos State.
“We are very pleased. Justice has been done today, typical of our appellate courts in this country,” she added.
Mr. Ojo said that his client would appeal against the judgment.
“I am sure that the appellant (Mr. Ezeugo), who has always maintained his innocence, who has always seen himself as a victim of vicious manipulation of a gang of reckless and mischievous persons, would want to go further in the judicial hierarchy,” Mr. Ojo said.
A resolution adopted by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in Abuja, in 2008; urged all African states to observe a moratorium on the execution of death sentences, with a view to abolishing the death penalty.
Based on that, Mr. Ezeugo, who is presently in Katsina Prisons, may have his death sentence reduced to life imprisonment before execution of the sentence.