Thursday , July 14, 2016 - 6:00 AM
OGDEN — An email thanking a former classmate for his example to improve the justice system landed Judge Michael DiReda in Uganda earlier this summer.
DiReda, who serves in the 2nd District Court in Ogden, spent two weeks visiting prisons in Uganda after having read earlier this year, “Divine Collision: An African Boy, An American Lawyer, and Their Remarkable Battle for Freedom,” by Jim Gash, a law professor at Pepperdine University’s Law School in Malibu, California.
Gash had gone to Uganda in 2010 as part of a project that he thought would be just a one-time deal, DiReda said. Then he met Tumusiime Henry, who had been arrested for murder and booked in a Ugandan juvenile remand center when he was 15 years old and had never seen a judge.
“(Gash) thought this is not right. Henry needs help, so he worked hard and discovered that there was no evidence that Henry committed the murder,” DiReda said.
Henry was acquitted and is now in his second year at medical school, DiReda said.
The story is told in a documentary, “Remand,” which has been submitted to the Sundance Film Festival 2017, DiReda said.
DiReda and Gash had been classmates at Pepperdine’s law school and had maintained their friendship over the years. While congratulating his friend about the book and documentary in an email, DiReda added a note for Gash to let him know if he could help in the The Prison Project.
“I didn’t expect to travel. I thought (Gash) would use me as a resource on plea bargains and the judicial system,” DiReda said.
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Gash contacted him and invited him to join his group in Uganda from June 16 to June 29. DiReda had to coordinate his court calendar so there were no pending trials during that time period. The other judges he works with stepped up and covered his court calendars during that two-week period.
DiReda said that two weeks visiting three prisons in Uganda has changed his life.
Each prison was built to house 300 inmates, but each prison housed 1,000 to 1,200 inmates, he said. Many of the inmates had been waiting to have their cases heard before a judge. In Uganda, there are no jails like Davis County Jail, and there is no such thing as bail. Once a person is arrested, they are incarcerated until prosecutors bring their cases to court. That can take anywhere from four to six years, DiReda said.
“Their system is merciless,” DiReda said. “There is no probation. No parole. The average life expectancy for man is 52 years. So if they are arrested when they are 20 and sentenced to serve 30 years, that is the bulk of their life.”
DiReda, along with other attorneys and law students from the United States and Uganda, lead the Second Annual National Peal Bargaining Conference, attended by more than 100 judicial and legislative officials in Uganda.
They showed Uganda officials how a plea bargain works, which includes sentencing agreements, DiReda said.
Plea bargaining or negotiating a criminal case is a new concept to many Uganda prosecutors and defense advocates because there is “no motivation to get a resolution. They don’t have speedy trial rights in Uganda,” he said.
DiReda said the group visited three Ugandan prisons: Fort Portal, Mbarara and Bushenyi. At each prison, the visiting group would set up a tent, chairs and tables in the middle of the prison courtyard. They would be surrounded by the inmates, many of whom charged with murder, aggravated robbery and rape.
“They were the happiest, the kindest, most generous and respectful people I’ve ever met,” DiRida said.
Prosecutors brought case files, which were were not organized like files in the United States. Police, prosecutors and witnesses wrote notes and statements by hand on any paper that was available, DiReda said.
It took Ugandan officials a day to realize how plea bargaining works, but once they understood it, the group was able to get 200 cases from one prison in the court process and had similar successes at the other two prisons.
Uganda High Court Judge David Bateman was able to close 98 cases in three days after defendants had signed plea agreements.
DiReda said his group came in contact with one man who had committed a crime at the age of 16 but was not arrested until he was 18. He had been in a Ugandan prison for four years. Under Ugandan law, a juvenile cannot be sentenced longer than three years for a crime.
When DiReda approached the prosecutor about a possible plea agreement, the prosecutor, who thought the man had committed the crime as an adult, said if the man pleaded guilty he would agree to have him serve 30 years. DiReda said he went back to the group and they searched through the file again. DiReda asked the prosecutor to look at the file to see if they had missed something that indicated the man had committed the crime as an adult.
The prosecutor realized the evidence showed the crime had been committed when the man was 16. The prosecutor agreed that if the man pleaded guilty he would give him credit for the four years he had already served waiting for his case to be adjudicated and have him released, DiReda said.
“This man didn’t understand at first what was happening,” DiReda said. “He was uneducated about the law and could have spent the next 25 years to 30 years in prison.”
DiReda acknowledges the U.S. judicial system is not perfect, but the Uganda judicial system “made me appreciate the system we have, flaws and all.”
“We do have room to grow,” he said. “I appreciate the Constitution and our rights. I know we all take our rights for granted, but I appreciate the right to council and the right to a speedy trial. I don’t think we think about those rights often enough.”
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