If you’ve watched the ongoing interviews with Kenya’s next Chief Justice, a name has often appeared in the engagement between each candidate and the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) panel – Muruatetu.
Some non-lawyers have come to understand the term as legal jargon, but the simple explanation is that the name refers to a convict who is currently serving a life sentence at Kamiti Maximum Prison – Francis Karoki Muruatetu.
The story starts on February 4, 2000, in Kitengela, where city land dealer Lawrence Githinji Magondu was brutally murdered.
A month earlier, on January 17, Magondu had received a call from two people who said they wanted to buy his land. They went to his office and stayed there for about 30 minutes discussing the deal.
Excited that he would have a better deal than another one that he had been offered by a different buyer, the dealer informed his driver about what had transpired. Little did he know that contact with the two would lead him to his grave and his driver left for dead.
On that fateful day, Magondu received a call from the two land buyers, requesting that they meet to finalize the deal. The caller was Wilson Thiribu Mwangi.
The businessman (Lawrence Magondu), accompanied by his driver, Harrison King’ori, drove to the appointed meeting place and they were joined by the buyers. This group included Mwangi, his sister, Anna Ngonyo, and three men who were introduced as workers.
Mwangi told Magondu that the men were there to fence the land as soon as the deal was sealed.
They were carrying barbed wire, iron bars, two crowbars, and a new panga. After they inspected the land, they all left in two cars and headed towards Maasai Ostrich Farm. Magondu drove away with Mwangi and the woman while King’ori went with the three men said to be workers.
Magondu and Mwangi went to a hotel, where they held brief talks and then came out a few minutes later. The group then set off to the piece of land. King’ori later learned that one of his three passengers had gone to the other car carrying his employer.
When he asked what was happening, the two men ordered him to take them to a butchery.
After a few minutes at the butchery, the other car zoomed past and stopped a short distance away. The man who had left King’ori’s car to drive with the other vehicle came back and asked him to follow Mwangi’s car, saying it was on the instructions of Magondu.
King’ori followed the speeding car, but as they approached Portland village, he noticed that Magondu was not in the vehicle. Upon inquiry, he was told he was sleeping on the back seat, but on close scrutiny, he realized this was not true. When he asked more questions, the men ordered him to shut up. Near Nairobi National Park, King’ori was pulled out, attacked, and left for dead.
The killers’ plan backfired because King’ori did not die. He was rescued by a passerby and the incident was reported at Athi River Police Station.
King’ori told the court that the men who assaulted him discussed how they would hit him at the same place they had hit his boss, Magondu.
That evening, Magondu’s body was found at Kitengela, with the hands tied with a sisal rope. He had deep wounds on the forehead. A postmortem examination on February 8, 2000, by then government pathologist Alex Kirasi Olumbe concluded that the head injuries were caused by a blunt object.
Twelve people were arraigned in court, including former Lands Commissioner Wilson Gachanja, his wife, Elizabeth Gitiri, her half-brother, Francis Muruatetu, and sister, Rose Njoki, Mwangi, Ngonyo, David Karuga, Stephen Wambua, and Stephen Njoki alias Blackie.
In March 2003, Justice Msagha Mbogholi found eight of the accused guilty and sentenced seven of them to death. He ordered that Ngonyo serve a life sentence as she was pregnant.
Gachanja and three others were acquitted. The eight appealed but only Gitiri’s conviction was quashed.
Francis Muruatetu’s name has been immortalized thanks to a landmark case where he successfully asked the Supreme Court of Kenya to declare the mandatory death penalty unconstitutional. His legal team was headed by senior lawyer Fred Ngatia – a candidate seeking the post of chief justice.
The basis of their petition was:
-The penal code 204, removes the independence of the court since the sentence is already predetermined.
– Infringement of the constitutional right to a fair trial.
– The mandatory death penalty interfered with the right to life enshrined in Kenya’s 2010 constitution.
In a landmark decision (officially known as Francis Karioko Muruatetu & Another v Republic 2017) the Supreme Court agreed with Muruatetu and ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional.
The ruling, which is simply cited as the Muruatetu case, has had repercussions in the legal world, not just in Kenya, but has become case law in all Commonwealth countries.
He not only dealt with the issue of the right to life but also established priority on issues of independence of different branches of government, the right to a fair trial, among others.
Despite the favorable ruling, Muruatetu and his fellow inmate were required to serve a life sentence, although Kenya’s lower courts were freed from mandatory death sentences and given the discretion to adjudicate on the case by case.