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Commentary: Fair trial concerns following death sentence ruled via ZOOM

FairTrialsAdmin - May 11, 2020 - COVID-19 Updates, Commentary, Remote Justice

 

Olalekan Hameed was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death in a trial conducted through the videoconferencing application ZOOM, on 4 May in Nigeria. This is the first reported death sentence to be issued in remote proceedings despite grave concerns regarding the fairness of such proceedings. The ruling was delivered by a judge in Lagos and Hameed appeared remotely from prison, with Hameed’s lawyer and the prosecutor also joining remotely.

In any criminal proceedings, but particularly where the potential outcome is as irreversible as a death sentence, it is crucial to ensure that the trial is conducted fairly, and fairness depends on the effectiveness of defence rights. Previous studies have shown that the most basic defence rights can be significantly restricted in the context of remote hearings. The participation of defendants in their trial is impaired, with defendants less likely to voice their concerns and objections. Without a lawyer sitting next to the defendant, as for Hameed, it may be difficult for the defendant to follow and understand the proceedings, which are often complex and involve technical legal language. Research also shows that effective lawyer-client consultations are significantly impaired in a video setting, which prevents short exchanges during the trial. Moreover, technical difficulties affecting image and sound can also lead to harsher sentencing.

Fair Trials has raised concerns about the impact of remote hearings on the fairness of proceedings and issued related recommendations.

Remotely appearing at a trial is a restriction of a fundamental fair trial guarantee – the defendant’s right to be physically present at their trial. As with any restriction, it is important to consider the justification and necessity for the use of remote hearings, and to weigh up the benefits and risks. This means taking into account a number of factors, including:

  • the nature of the hearing;
  • the complexity of the case and the matter being dealt with;
  • the need to call witnesses; and
  • the likely consequences of the hearing on the rights of the defendant.

In this case, a possible death sentence meant the defendant’s very life was at risk, and this calls into question the use of a remote proceeding. In Hameed’s case, it is difficult to see the reasons that could justify a ZOOM hearing at the expense of the defendant’s right to be present at his trial and despite other obvious risks to essential defence rights.

Fair Trials has called for a thorough impact assessment of remote justice tools on defendants’ fair trial rights before these can be used in non-urgent criminal proceedings carrying grave potential consequences for defendants. Any decision to proceed with remote hearings should be carefully weighed against the potential outcome of the trial for defendants and their ability to present a meaningful defence.

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on +44 (0) 20 7822 2370 or +32 (0) 2 360 04 71.

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