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Return Journey

Deans Tim Perrin and Jim Gash work with Pepperdine law students to advocate for imprisoned children in Uganda.

False accusations. Lengthy pre-trial detentions. Being forcibly removed from home in the middle of the night. These are just a few of the realities for many of the Ugandan children housed in the Naguru Remand Home, a juvenile detention facility for children awaiting trial, just outside the capital city of Kampala.

At the invitation of Ugandan officials and organizations working on the ground in the country, a group from Pepperdine spent an intensive four days this summer working to achieve justice on behalf of 17 of those imprisoned children, each of whom faced serious criminal charges.

Led by Vice Dean Tim Perrin and Associate Dean for Student Life, Jim Gash (JD ’93), the group included ten second-year law students, David Nary, Lisa Regn, Meghan Milloy, Peter Kang, Michael Rivas, Stevie Newton, Kyle Matous, and Jen Price, who were already in Uganda as part of the law school’s Global Justice Program. They were joined by alumni Brett LoVellette (JD ’08) and John Napier (JD ’08), who were also stationed in Uganda as Fellows with Pepperdine’s Nootbaar Institute.

The journey followed closely on the heels of a trip to northern Uganda in January by four alums whose work led to the release of 21 children from the Remand Home in Masindi. Read the story here. 

Over the course of four days, the Pepperdine contingent prepared case briefs for each child, summarizing the law, the government’s evidence, the child’s statement, and any other evidence available about the allegations. With the help of three Ugandan interpreters, the group worked on a variety of cases: four murders, approximately a dozen aggravated defilement cases, and a few aggravated robberies. The completed case briefs were shared with the presiding judge, the prosecuting and defense attorneys, and the probation officers.

In many of these cases, children were jailed even with insufficient evidence. “Most of the cases we looked at were defilement cases of children under 12,” says Gash. “If true, many of the facts were quite disturbing; the problem with most of the cases, however, was that there were no witnesses other than the young victim, and the child’s statements were notoriously inconsistent from interview to interview.”

In one particular case, three of the young men were charged with murder due to their alleged participation in a mob murder in their village. The details of the case file showed that the police had rounded up suspects one month after the murder took place and that the juveniles at Naguru had never been identified by anyone as having participated in the crime.

“We had spoken with relatives, who confirmed their alibis,” says Perrin. “Some of them were not even in town on the date of the murder. We finally obtained the police file, which included a document—dated May 20, 2010—prepared by the head prosecutor that said that they had decided to dismiss these children from the case because there was no evidence against them. No one had bothered to inform the juveniles who had been in the Naguru Remand Home for nine months or more that they were free to return to their families.”

“When all of the defendants, including the adults, were brought into the judge’s chambers, the prosecutors informed the judge that they would not be prosecuting these three children. The kids kept looking at us for assurance as they tried to understand what was happening. We kept telling them that they were released and that they could go home. They kept saying ‘thank you, thank you. It is OK now.’”

In contrast to the judicial system in the United States, lawyers in Uganda typically have no access to the prosecution’s evidence before the trial starts, and, in the case of these children, the defense lawyers would only meet them shortly prior to entering court, putting together a defense in the limited time available. The case briefs proved invaluable not only to the defense attorneys, but also to the court and the prosecutors. In an email exchange with David Nary, Judge Tabaro, the presiding judge for each of the cases, noted, “the detailed information concerning the juveniles was of great help to me.” 

At the end of the visit, when the Pepperdine group returned to the Remand Home, 7 of the 17 of the children had already been released to their families. (As of today, 12 of the children have been released.) The quick release was in contrast to the Masindi Remand Home (where Gash led a trip in January) and where the children had to spend another week in the Remand Home even after being released by the court.

On the last day of the visit, the Pepperdine group returned to the Remand Home to see the remaining children, to give them their photos from earlier in the week, and to say their final good-byes.

“We left a bit satisfied and more somber, but we also left painfully aware that we were only making a dent in the problem,” said Gash of his third trip to Uganda in the past year. “The highlight of the trip has been to see the individual faces of the boys who were released and to see the gratitude in their eyes (and in the eyes of their families) as the hope returned to their lives.”

Nary reflected, “There is so much I learned from my time [in Uganda] and I became especially aware of this upon my return to the U.S. In many ways my time there rejuvenated my spirit and gave me a new outlook on life.”

Visit Pepperdine’s Global Justice Program.