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Richard Chipoka

  • Malawi
  • Death penalty; mandatory death penalty

Richard Chipoka spent over 13 years imprisoned in Malawi, ten of those on death row. His records were lost or destroyed, meaning there was confusion over what had put him on death row in the first place. He was one of the first prisoners to be re-sentenced and released following the abolition of the mandatory death penalty in Malawi.

Richard's story

Richard Chipoka was a newly married father of one when he was arrested following an incident in his village.  There had been an armed robbery at a local shop. The police initially suspected one of Richard’s brothers and came looking for him at Richard’s family home. He was not there, but they arrested Richard and several other members of his family, apparently in an attempt to persuade Richard’s brother to surrender. For reasons never explained to Richard, his family was released but Richard was kept in custody. He was then charged with armed robbery alongside a co-defendant, a man whom Richard claims he had never met.

Both men were found guilty of armed robbery and Richard was sentenced to five years imprisonment. In 2005, when he was approaching the end of his sentence, Richard was told that he and his co-defendant were being charged with murder. Richard says it was never made clear whose murder he had been charged with and why he was only now being charged if the offence had occurred at the time of the robbery. Both men were subsequently convicted and sentenced to death, the mandatory sentence for murder at the time. Richard has consistently maintained his innocence and that he knew nothing about either of the alleged offences.

Mandatory death penalty challenged

In 2005, working with local lawyers and the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), The Death Penalty Project coordinated a successful challenge to Malawi’s mandatory death penalty in the landmark case of Kafantayeni & Others. Richard was one of the six plaintiffs included in this constitutional motion.

In its judgment, delivered in 2007, Malawi’s High Court declared unconstitutional the death sentences of all prisoners on death row. In its unanimous verdict, the Court found that the automatic nature of the death penalty for murder violated the right to life and amounted to inhuman punishment, as it did not provide the individuals concerned with an opportunity to mitigate their death sentences. As a result, all 192 prisoners on death row in Malawi were entitled to be re-sentenced, Richard included.

“Richard is over the moon with the result. He has been reunited with his family and received a warm welcome by his village upon his return…Richard has spoken at length about his intention to find work to support his family and to re-integrate back into his community”

Emile Carreau (Volunteer lawyer who worked on Richard’s case)

Records lost

In preparation for Richard’s re-sentencing hearing, volunteer lawyer Emile Carreau conducted an exhaustive search for the records of Richard and other prisoners through the chaotic and sometimes rat-infested records offices of the Supreme Court and High Court. Many of the records were water-damaged, unlabeled or incomplete. In Richard’s case, the search was fruitless and it appears his records had either been lost or destroyed during his years in prison. Without a trial transcript there was confusion over the details of the alleged murder that had put Richard on death row, it was not clear even clear who the victim was.

Re-sentencing

Richard’s re-sentencing hearing was held on 15 July 2015. In considering his sentence, the presiding judge took into account strong mitigating evidence that was presented in Richard’s favour, including the fact that he had been young man in his early twenties at the time of the alleged offence and had no previous convictions. The judge also considered statements from members of Richard’s village attesting that he had been a productive member of society before his arrest.

Richard was re-sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.  Taking into account the 13 and a half years he had already spent in prison and remission for good behaviour, Richard was released immediately. He has now returned to his village and been reunited with his family.

Watch this video of Richard’s village celebrating his returns to the community (unfortunately the image quality is poor):

Case Timeline

  1. An armed robbery takes place in Richard’s home village of Njoloma. Richard is arrested by police.

  2. Richard is tried and convicted of armed robbery

  3. Richard is tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to death

  4. The Death Penalty Project begin to work on a constitutional challenge to Malawi’s mandatory death penalty

  5. In a landmark judgement, the High Court of Malawi declared the mandatory death penalty unconstitutional and quashed the death sentences of all prisoners on death row in Malawi, including Richard Chipoka.

  6. The Court of Appeal of Malawi in the case of Twoboy Jacob v Republic approved the decision of the High Court in declaring the mandatory death penalty unconstitutional

  7. Richard is re-sentenced by the Malawi High Court and released immediately

Gallery

Richard with his family and volunteer lawyer Emile Carreau on return to his village

Richard's village

Richard with document certifying his release

File room in the High Court of Lilongwe

Clerk searching through judicial records at the National Archive of Malawi

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