Anita Mugeni, one of the few criminal-defense lawyers in Rwanda (a place that makes Williamson County look almost civilized).
Recently, Anita defended a woman appealing a conviction sentencing her to death. Despite the seriousness of the charges, the court had not appointed a lawyer and the woman did not know she had a right to one. The woman was accused of murdering her neighbor by poisoning her. As Anita discovered, however, the neighbor was still alive.
Anita drove across the country on her own expense to visit the woman in prison. The woman was from a small village and had little education. She was confused and afraid she was going to die. The police had beaten her so severely that she confessed to murdering a woman who was, in fact, still alive.
After consoling the woman, Anita returned to the Supreme Court to study the woman’s file. She discovered that the alleged poison was never analyzed in a lab – there is no forensic lab in the woman’s village. The substance was not even tested on an animal, which is an accepted method of identifying poisonous substances. The Prosecutor and the Court were aware of the lack of evidence and the fact that the woman’s neighbor was still alive. But they pressed on with the prosecution.
At the time, the death penalty had not been abolished. Without Anita’s help, the woman could have been executed. Anita won an acquittal and the woman was released, but there was no way to repair the damage that had already been done. The woman spent three years in pre-trial detention. A widow, she was forced to leave three small children alone at home with no one to care for them. Anita claims that if the woman had access to a lawyer she would not have spent a day in prison.
Rwanda has 300 lawyers, up from about 50 in 1994 after the genocide (“Unsurprisingly, they are often the first ones to be eliminated when political instability, defiance, and conflict undermine the rule of law.“). In June, Anita helped train 80 of them as criminal-defense lawyers.
The American criminal justice system basically stinks, but it’s better than at least the majority of the alternatives, and next to Rwanda’s it’s a paragon of due process. Sentenced to death for poisoning someone who was still alive? I don’t know what a criminal trial is like in Rwanda, but in this case it may have involved dunking the woman in a pond to see if she floated.
Unpaid and unasked, Anita Mugeni saved one person’s life, and she works to teach others to do the same. This is in the highest tradition of the criminal defense bar; for this, she is Defending People’s Criminal Defense Hero of the Day.
(Anita is going to be a tough act to follow. I may never give out another CDHD award.)