After 22 years, the Supreme Court yesterday freed one Alban Ajaegbu, who was one of the accused persons in the celebrated ‘Otokoto’ ritual murder of 11-year-old Ikechukuwu Okoronkwo. Okoronkwo, who was a groundnut seller, was on September 19, 1996, lured into a hotel called Otokoko in Owerri, Imo State and beheaded.
Investigations had revealed that the victim became unconscious at the hotel after he drank a bottle of Coca-Cola that was already spiked with drug before he was killed.
The crime was discovered when 32-year-old Innocent Ekeanyanwu left the hotel to deliver Okoronkwo’s head in a polythene bag to a client. An okada rider who was conveying Ekenyanwu to his destination discovered the fresh human head and alerted the police and among those arrested over the ritual murder included the owner of the hotel, one Vincent Duru, who was popularly referred to as Chief Otokoto.
Besides beheading the victim, the suspects were said to have removed vital organs from his body including his genitals before burying the mutilated corpse in a shallow grave. All the seven suspects fingered in the ritual killing were all found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.
However, Ajaegbu, who was discharged and acquitted of the crime by the Supreme Court yesterday, was said to have worked at the hotel only as a gardener. The apex court, in a unanimous judgement by a five-man panel of justices, held that circumstantial evidence the trial court relied upon to convict and sentence him to death by hanging was not sufficient.
Specifically, Justice Kudirat Kekere-Ekun, who prepared the lead judgment, held that: “It must be restated here that the appellant was charged with murder and the prosecution has the burden of proving beyond reasonable doubt that it was the act of the appellant that caused the deceased’s death.
“The appellant does not have the burden to prove his innocence. The lower court held that the defence of the appellant raised a lot of suspicion. The law is well settled that suspicion, no matter how grave, cannot take the place of proof,” Kekere- Ekun stated, holding that the assumption of the lower courts that because the appellant worked in the hotel for 17 years, he should have known who owned the farm that Okoronkwo was buried in, was fallacious. The apex court added: “Suspicion cannot take the place of legal proof.
That the appellant worked in the hotel for 17 years and didn’t know who owned the farm cannot make him guilty. The law is settled, that an accused person told lies does not make him guilty.”
The apex court, however, held that the prosecution failed to prove its case beyond every reasonable doubt. Consequently, it set aside the 2012 judgment of the Court of Appeal in Owerri which upheld the death sentence of the trial court and acquitted and discharged Ajaegbo, with the apex court’s decision read by Justice Ejembi Eko.