Students aim to use Innocence Project to help young Kenyan

Ben-Hadad Kimani was convicted of murder, but many believe he is innocent

When Griffith College dean of law and founding director of the Irish Innocence Project David Langwallner was teaching Liz Harpur intellectual property law and jurisprudence, he had no idea he would one day be pleading in a death penalty case in Kenya on behalf of her nephew Ben-Hadad Kimani.

Kimani was 17 when he was arrested on August 29th, 2001 for a double murder in Kenya. He was convicted and sentenced to death row but has always maintained his innocence.

Some time early next year, at the behest of Kimani’s aunt in Dublin and the invitation of the Kenyan government – and dependent on funding – the Irish Innocence Project at Griffith College hopes to send a delegation to appear before the power of mercy advisory committee to plea on Kimani’s behalf.

The committee, a government body founded in 2011 and chaired by the attorney general, advises Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta on matters pertaining to miscarriages of justice, pardons and commutations. According to a 2014 report prepared by the committee, there were nearly 24,000 petitions received between June 2013 and July 2014 seeking presidential review, including 3,376 serving life sentences and 1,107 on death row.

Openness

“We are enormously grateful for this opportunity to appear before the power of mercy advisory committee in Kenya on behalf of Ben Kimani, who has been sentenced to death as a result of a murder conviction. We thank the committee for their openness and welcomeness,” says Langwallner. “We respect the authority of this government advisory committee and welcome the chance to meet with its members.”

Kimani’s case was first referred to the Irish Innocence Project in 2013 by Harpur, a Dublin resident and barrister. She sought the project’s assistance after she learned from her sister during a trip to Kenya for her mother’s funeral that her nephew had been sentenced to death and was imprisoned at Naivasha prison.

"On July 24th, 2013, I met Ben briefly at the Kenya high court where his appeal was being heard. He was in the custody of a prison officer and was holding his own brief. There was no sign of his lawyer. He handed me the brief and said to me, 'Please, Auntie, help me !'" says Harpur. "When I returned to Ireland I got in touch with Ben's lawyer who provided me with more details of the case. We worked on some points to put forward in the appeal which had been put forward to November. Unfortunately the appeal was dismissed."

Reviewing the case

Harpur had contacted Langwallner about enlisting the help of the Irish Innocence Project while preparing for the appeal. Langwallner and a number of student caseworkers have been reviewing the case and consulting with Kimani’s lawyers.

On the night of August 29th, 2001, Kimani claims he bought a bus ticket from Buscar Company and boarded a bus at 7.30pm to travel from Nairobi to Mombasa. About that same time, 232km away in the Mtito Andei township, a small town of fewer than 5,000 people, shopkeeper Irene Ng’endo and her young son Stephen Mwaura were shot to death.

Kimani claims the bus finally pulled away from the bus-stop in Nairobi at about 8.30pm and on the way to Mombasa stopped at a canteen called the Wayside in Mtito Andei for a tea break at about 11.45pm. It was there that the canteen supervisor reportedly told police that Kimani and a second man were acting suspiciously and Kimani was arrested.

The Irish Innocence Project was launched in September 2009 by Langwallner to investigate and overturn suspected wrongful conviction cases in Ireland. It is one of 68 projects recognised globally by the Innocence Network and one of two such projects with both law and journalism students working together on cases. It currently has 22 law and journalism students from Griffith College and Trinity College Dublin working on about 30 cases under the supervision of 12 pro-bono lawyers.

The services of the project are provided free and the project was recognised as a tax-exempt charity in Ireland by the Revenue Commissioners in December 2014. While Griffith College provides an institutional home, it is otherwise self-funded. It is the only Innocence Project in Ireland.

In order to fund the delegation, which will include Langwallner, along with at least one student caseworker, the Irish Innocence Project journalism interns launched a month-long crowd-funding campaign at Indiegogo with a target of raising €5,000. The campaign concludes on December 7th, and the proceeds from the crowd funding campaign will be used to support the project and underwrite the expenses of the trip.

“We’ve received incredible support from the public with previous crowd-funding campaigns,” said Therese Ekevid, an Irish Innocence Project journalism caseworker. “They’ve helped us raise awareness on wrongful convictions as a human rights issue, enabled us to provide the people whose cases we’re on with support and professional help, as well as getting influential contributors to discuss wrongful convictions at public programmes. This time, the funds and public awareness we raise will not only do that, but we actually have a chance of saving Ben from death row.”

Wrongful convictions

According to the Innocence Project in New York, which was founded in 1992 to investigate cases in which DNA evidence could be used to prove a wrongful conviction, research suggests that somewhere between 2.3 and 5 per cent of all convictions in the US are actually of innocent people.

Langwallner says this is a concern in every country since wrongful convictions know no boundaries. “I would say that the Innocence movement has become a Médecins Sans Frontières of lawyers. There are mistakes made in every jurisdiction and we hope to help correct them or, even better, prevent them from happening.”

Anne Driscoll is the journalist project manager of the Irish Innocence Project at Griffith College and a 2013-2014 US Fulbright scholar. Simon Walsh is an Irish Innocence Project journalist student intern

The Indiegogo campaign can be found at http://bit.ly/1MxoQQQ