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Opinions of Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Columnist: Awuni, Manasseh Azure

Savannah View: Oba Chandler and the Ya-Na murder trial

By Manasseh Azure Awuni

When the American Bible scholar, Lavelle Layfield, was asked whether all sins are equal, his answer was as evasive as the biblical position on the subject. “I know of no passage in the Bible that indicates that one sin is greater than the other,” he replied.

Neither the Bible nor its scholars seem to have a definite answer to the question. The closest answer to the question, however, is found in James 2:10: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one is guilty of breaking all of it.” Without trying to add to or subtract from the Word of God, I do not agree that all sins are equal. Just consider these two scenarios. Scenario one: Kwame is of age and has found Ama, a beautiful woman, as the love of his life. Kwame and Ama will get married soon. The two are expected to tame their libidinal drives until they are pronounced husband and wife. But as human as they are, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. So they commit a sin. Scenario two: Take the case of this American called Oba Chandler. The name may sound romantic, but the same cannot be said of the actions of the man who owns it. The man Chandler, an aluminium building contractor and a father of 8, was sentenced to death in the US in 1994. But it was on October 10, 2011, that Florida Governor Rick Scott signed his death warrant, a day before Chandler celebrated his 65th birthday. Oba Chandler was executed on November 15, 2011 with a lethal injection and was pronounced dead at exactly 4:25pm. What was Oba Chandler’s sin?

In May 1989 a woman, together with her two daughters, left her husband in their dairy farm in Ohio for a vacation in Florida. It was these hapless and helpless women that Oba Chandler lured into the vast waters of Tampa Bay with his pleasure boat and raped them, one after the other. But raping a woman and her two daughters at the same time was not enough satisfaction for the cruel sadist. He bound their hands and feet, tied concrete blocks around their necks and lowered them, one by one, into the sea.

No real criminal foolish. Never! The reason why Angel, the world’s deadliest assassin in Sydney Sheldon’s novel, Windmills of the Gods, is able to outwit the CIA and other investigators is because the killer poses as an idiot through whom one can get to Angel “himself.” No attention is paid to her because no real criminal is such an idiot. But they find out, when it’s too late, that the female “moron” is actually Angel of Death.

So was Oba Chandler. He was a clever person who knew how seal all possible clues that could lead investigators to him. So it took five years of rigorous investigation before someone was arrested in connection with the murders. And it was Oba Chandler. He denied knowledge of the crime, setting the tone for another crack trial. Riddle, riddle! If it takes five years to link someone to a crime, how long will it take prosecutors and the judge to get him convicted? Well, your guess is as bad as mine. The answer is: two weeks. Yes, two weeks was how long it took to get Oba Chandler convicted. And the 12-member jury took only five minutes to arrive at a unanimous decision.

The murders the Rogers women received extensive media coverage in America. One of the most detailed accounts of the murders was a 40 thousand word-long series by Thomas French of the St. Petersburg Times. The series, which was titled Angels and Demons, won Thomas French the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. Angels and Demons gives a detailed account of how expertise, resources and commitment to justice on the part of police officers can unravel what could pass for a mysterious Wonder of the World. It shows that when investigators and prosecutors do their work well, the judge and jurors have no much work to do. Having digested every sentence of Thomas French’s account, I agreed perfectly with the speaker as I sat in the Krachi West District Assembly Hall that late afternoon. His Worship Emmanuel Nana Antwi Barima, a career magistrate, was in his usual elements. And this time, it was the police who were at the receiving end of the magistrate’s bluntness-with-the-truth disposition. He was speaking about the police and public prosecution, and his audiences were police officers, officers from Interpol, CHRAJ and other security agencies. They were there to launch a special operation on the Volta Lake the following day, which would result in the rescue of 116 trafficked and under aged children used for fishing activities. This was at a period when hell crumbled onto Mother Ghana after the Ya-Na ruling that absolved all 15 accused persons of any wrongdoing. “Some of you are responsible for the chaos that goes on in the country after rulings on major cases,” he pointed out. His argument was simple. There are certain cases that any layperson knows that the judge has every reason to convict the accused. However, when the prosecutors and investigators do a shoddy work and come to court, the judge or magistrate cannot concoct compelling evidence to convict the accused.

“We in court do not manufacture evidence or twist laws,” Emmanuel Nana Antwi Barima told the attentive audience. “We pass judgement based on the merits of the arguments raised by the defence and prosecution. A prosecutor cannot do a shoddy job and expect us to pass a ruling in his or her favour.”

He said some investigators were also so corrupt that they compromised their professionalism and abandoned many cases all together. The look on the faces of the police officers did not show that they were enthused about the magistrate’s frankness. But he was spot on.

The Director of Training at the Criminal Investigation Department of the Ghana Police Service, Maame Yaa-Tiwaa Addo Danquah, later corroborated what the magistrate said. At the opening of a workshop to train police detectives and some military personnel in Accra, she said out of the 230,000 cases reported yearly at major police stations across the country, only 20% of them are investigated because the detectives lack the needed capacity. She added that not all the 20% go through prosecution because of improper investigation. The Oba Chandler’s investigation and trial revealed that investigation can be very expensive. At a point the American police had to travel to England to borrow the British police computer system called HOLMES (Home Office Large Major Enquiry System). The HOLMES had been used in investigating the the bombing of the Pan Am 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland, but the Americans did not have it. The investigators also had to make multiple journeys to Canada to speak to a tourist Oba Chandler had raped earlier. In the last days of the investigation, the FBI donated two planes for Chandler’s surveillance. The two planes took turns to station themselves in the sky, coming down only to refuel or for the pilot to take some rest. The whole of Thomas French’s series reads like a blockbuster detective fiction. But it is a reality of how expensive and technical the pursuit of justice can be.

Comparing Kwame and Ama’s premarital affair with Oba Chandler’s beastly murders, one can say the magnitude of both sins are not the same. And so it is with crime. All crimes are not the same and may not require the same amount of resources, expertise and time.

But in the case of the Ya-Na, which has left in its wake an endless slideshow security problems in the country, the investigators and prosecutors could have done better. They could have gone further, tried harder. The judge should be the last person to blame. First, the police in whose full glare a crime of such magnitude was committed in broad day light should be asked why they refused to act when they should. If the investigators and prosecutors had done a diligent job, some people would have been convicted. After all, the murders in Dagbon were not carried out by unseen spirits. Another reason that accounted for the success of the Chandler’s investigation was the role of the media. When police detectives came to a deadlock and presented the facts they had gathered over to the FBI for help, the bureau offered one advice: “Tell the newspapers and the TV and radio stations what you know and what you're looking for, and then they will tell the public, and then the public will be on your side, helping you search for this man.” And the police could not have succeeded without the media.

The media in Ghana, however, was completely muzzled during period of the Ya-Na murder. The Ministry of Information issued a directive that any media organisation that published a story on the murders without clearance from the ministry could face stiff sanctions, including imprisonment. This was unfortunate, especially when the government of the day was accused of shielding the culprits. A similar media censorship by government happened in the Guinea Fowl War of 1994.

An infuriated columnist of the Daily Graphic, Dr. Josiah Aryeh wrote in 2002, when newspapers would not publish even columns on the Ya-Na murder: “The papers appear to have extended the directive to every form of writing. In the result, readers are denied even candid and factual analyses of factors fuelling the conflict. Where does all this leave the reading public?”

The Ghana Journalists Association and the National Media Commission should ensure that media censorships during state of emergencies are left in the hands of an independent body other than government. The media are a critical source to rely on for evidence on such cases.

Ghana’s judiciary might not be as perfect as we want it to be. But judges are not entirely responsible for the outcome of cases. Let’s learn from the Oba Chandler trial, Emmanuel Antwi Barima’s admonition and the CID director’s confession. Justice is expensive and complex because no one pursues a witch with empty hands.

Let’s equip and build the capacity of our police, detectives and prosecutors. And most importantly, governments must take their hands off these institutions of state and allow them to work.

Savannah View is a column published every Tuesday in The Finder newspaper/Ghana

Writer’s email: azureachebe2@yahoo.com