Brick by Brick
Holstering Star BM pistols, dressed in finely pressed tan-uniforms, wearing slouched forage caps, and showing off perfectly polished black boots, the officers of the VIP Protection Unit for the Ugandan National Police were an intimidating sight as I approached courtroom number three. Familiar faces, though, dispel the oft intimidating pretense of dress, and from out of their gathered ranks I spotted John Were, Justice Lugayizi's trusted bodyguard. We shook hands and he greeted me in his classic way: a softly sounded, smiling "Hello, Mr. Greer." John guided me into the courtroom, where the gallery benches had been removed to make a u-shaped table facing two prominently situated seats reserved for Benjamin Odoki, the Chief Justice of Uganda and James Ogoola, the Principal Judge of Uganda. At the head of the room, against darkly varnished wood paneling, the crest of Uganda hung prominently with the motto, "For God and My Country," underneath.
The courtroom that day was the designated meeting space for all High Court Justices from across Uganda, as well as all of the nation's Division Registrars and Chief Magistrates. They had been called in from their assorted posts to discuss a series of action items, one of them being the implementation of plea bargaining. The Principal Judge had told me a few days earlier to be there to listen to the comments made and answer questions, if necessary.
Looking around the room, I spotted Justice Lugayizi and he told me to take a seat next to him at the u-shaped table. I resisted saying it was not appropriate for me to be seated with the judges, but he replied: "You and Pepperdine are practically a member of the Ugandan Judiciary now. You belong here." I took the seat finding myself to be the only non-judge or high ranking government official in attendance, to be the only person under the age of thirty, and quite obviously the only "mzungu." As can be expected, I felt out of place, but I did not feel unwelcome. Several judges extended their greetings and talked with me about their court and experiences in the judiciary. I met one judge who was stationed on a town along the northern border with Sudan. His face was forbiddingly tough yet his smile was infectious and he had a giddy sort of laugh. His eyes were full of expression, and when you looked at them you could just tell he had stories to tell. The northern portion of Uganda remains a tough place, intermittent guerrilla fighting still breaks out with a fanatical rebel faction known as the Lord's Resistance Army, and he stands as one of only a handful of judicial figures in this still volatile region. Hemingway would have loved to write about a man like him.
The meeting lasted for seven hours without a single break. About two of which was spent in discussion of and sometimes debate over the implementation of plea bargaining. To start, Ms. Margaret Tibulya, the Deputy Registrar of the Criminal Division, gave a presentation on the status of plea bargaining, which was followed by a positive endorsement of its gradual implementation from both the Principal Judge and Justice Lugayizi. The reception among the judiciary was largely positive, but it was equally cautious due to the delicate considerations that will come with implementation. The threat of corruption, the risk of infringing upon defendant's rights, and the potential for public misconceptions are real risks that must be kept at bay. The Principal Judge asked me to speak on two occasions in reply to questions raised. The first was to address potential safeguards to limit the potential for corruption. The second was to confirm the high rate in which criminal cases are plea bargained for in the US. By and large, the idea of plea bargaining here is poised for action, albeit a gradual, intentional, and closely scrutinized action.
Afterwards, I had a very late lunch with several judicial officials before seeing Justice Lugayizi one last time before the day came to a close. We again spoke about how plea bargaining's implementation must be gradual and closely monitored. The aim being to slowly build up the practice around a core group of attorneys and to gradually expand it outward as the practice becomes more formalized. The day's constant talk of prudence and systematic application led me to recall a fitting quote from the Roman Emperor Hadrian. When asked how Rome would rebuild itself after being destroyed by a devastating fire, he coyly – but correctly – replied: "Brick by brick, my citizens, brick by brick."
Such will be the mindset for plea bargaining's implementation here. Case by case and session by session a formalized process will rise upwards until a venerable structure is complete. Each action will stand on its predecessor's placement. Every addition to the wall will be made systematically with a mason's careful touch. It will be a definite build towards a definite improvement in Uganda's system of criminal justice.
Greer Illingworth, JD '10