What are capital offences and how are they handled? - Justice Centres Uganda
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What are capital offences and how are they handled?

A capital offence is one that carries a maximum sentence of death and is handled by a judge of the High Court. Examples of such offences include; Murder, Aggravated Robbery, Aggravated defilement, Rape among others. A person that has been charged with a capital offence is called a capital offender or an accused person.

What happens when a capital offender is taken to court?

Once a capital offender has been arrested, the first court he/she will be taken to is the Magistrates court in the area where the offence is suspected to have been committed. When he/she appears before this Court, the charge will be read to them in a language they understand, they will be asked whether they understand the charge and will not be required to admit or deny the offence, but instead to wait until their file is transferred to High court. It is in the High court where the admission or denial of a capital offence is supposed to be done.

The duty of the Magistrates court at this stage, therefore, is to send the accused person formally to High Court for trial. This process is called COMMITTAL.

1. Forwarding the capital offender’s file to High Court (Committal)

This involves the State Attorney preparing a document called Committal papers that are read before the Magistrates court, sending the accused person to High Court to have their case heard.

Process of Committal

  1. The document is read to the accused person in the language they understand
  2. The copies are signed by the magistrate.
  3. A copy is given to the accused person, another remains on the court file and the third one is retained by the State Attorney.
  4. This process should take place within 6 months from the time the accused first appears before the Magistrate.

NOTE: Having been committed to High Court for trial, they now have to wait to be listed for the next convenient criminal session. Today, many capital offenders have found themselves overstaying in prison after they have been committed to High Court for trial. Some actually wait for over three years before their trial before the High court. This has been a very big challenge and many of the accused have wondered what the problem could be. Many times it could take more than six (6) months to have a session scheduled at the High Court.

Some cases have even taken more than a year especially during this Covid-19 period and some of the reasons could include;

  1. Limited finances to schedule the court sessions
  2. Case backlog- Many cases in the queue and the earlier cases need to be handled first.
  3. Limited availability of judges willing to hold the sessions especially upcountry
  4. Closure of courts to curb the spread of the pandemic

The other challenge is that, in our criminal justice system many accused persons over stay on remand without being committed for several reasons. It’s important to note that when the case is concluded and the accused is found guilty, the sentence given is less the time they have spent on remand. There is always a miscarriage of justice in instances of delay on remand when the accused is finally acquitted or not found guilty. This is because most people due not pursue the compensation.

2. Full Hearing of the case

After the accused person has finally been listed for trial or if their name has finally been put on the list for a High Court Session, the case will proceed as follows;

  1. The accused persons listed for the session are informed.
  2. Court will inform lawyers that are available to represent the accused on State brief. These are usually paid by the government. However, the accused person has a right to get a private Lawyer of their choice.
  3. The Lawyers will proceed to prison where the accused person is detained, purposely to interview their client(s) (the accused persons) and get their side of the story.
  4. The prosecution (state attorney) and the lawyers of the accused persons exchange documents to be sure which evidence each is bringing to court including the number of witnesses that will testify.
  5. On the day of the hearing, the Prosecution opens its case by calling its witnesses to testify, the first witness being the complainant (the one that reported the case). (Note: Sometimes prosecution and defence is given an opportunity to make opening statements, this is done before hearing of witnesses).
  6. All these witnesses are cross-examined by the defence lawyer (lawyer of the accused).
  7. Once all the prosecution witnesses are heard, the prosecution will close its case.
  8. Before the accused person is put to his/ her defence, the court will have to rule as to whether he/ she has a case to answer. Having a case to answer means there is enough evidence presented by the prosecution that requires answers from the accused. If there is no case for the accused to answer, the accused person will be acquitted/ released at this stage. This will mean that the prosecution has not proved its case. If the court, however, rules that the accused has a case to answer, he/ she will be put on their defence.
  9. The accused person will testify and so will his / her witnesses if available.
  10. These witnesses will also be cross-examined by the prosecution Lawyer many times called the State Attorney.
  11. The defence will then close its case and a date will be given as to when the judgment will be read. Such a date is usually communicated on notice to both the accused person’s lawyers and the prosecutors.
  12. The judgment is finally read. If the accused is found innocent, he/ she will be acquitted and set free and if he/ she is found guilty, the court will have to give an appropriate sentence for the accused.
  13. But before this is done the Lawyer for the accused or the accused person will have to mitigate the sentence. Here the lawyer asks court for a lenient sentence based on some factors e.g. The time the accused has spent on remand, his/ her remorsefulness/ regret, sickness if any, family responsibilities etc.
  14. An appropriate sentence is given and the accused person is committed to prison to serve his/ her sentence.

Note that in High Court Trials the judge is supported by Assessors. Assessors can give an opinion regarding whether or not they believe the accused is guilty given the evidence presented. The opinion of the Assessors does not bind the Judge in any way and the Judge may depart from it, giving his or her reasons why.

Role of Justice Centres Uganda in Capital offences

  • JCU helps in applying for bail for the accused person.
  • Representing the accused person on state briefs.
  • Giving basic legal advice to the family members of the accused person.

Further Readings:

What happens when a family member/ friend has been arrested by the police?

What is Police Bond and who has the mandate to grant it?

What is the process of hearing the case of a person accused of a capital offence in the High Court?

What is the process of hearing a petty offender’s case in the Magistrate’s Court?

What happens when someone is arrested for committing a petty offence?

What is bail and what is it good for?

When and how to apply for Bail in High Court?

When and how to apply for Bail in a Magistrate’s Court?

What is plea bargain and what is it good for?

Sources of information

  1. The Constitution of the Republic of Uganda 1995
  2. The Trial on indictment Act Cap
  3. The Criminal Procedure Code Act Cap 116
  4. The Magistrates Court Act Cap 16
  5. The Magistrates Courts (Magisterial Areas) Instrument 2017
  6. The Judicature (Plea bargain) Rules 2016