In the course of ascertaining the guilt of an accused and balancing the course of nature and events relating to murder and manslaughter. The court has been tasked with a responsibility to minimize the extent of these crimes in society by invoking the doctrine of last seen.
This legal principle is of significant importance where the cause and nature of a person’s death are in dispute.
The essence of man’s association with one another cannot be overemphasized, but the law has recorded that some associations can breed tragedy and inherent illegality.
This is to say that where a person was in company of a deceased before his death, he takes full responsibility for the person’s death. It is deducible in this context that their association has been tainted with illegality until the contrary is proven.
This paper tends to underscore the extent of application of the doctrine of last seen in the Nigerian criminal justice system and its logical challenges.
- Meaning and Nature of Doctrine of Last Seen.
In the case of Madu v. State (2012) LPELR-SC.12/2009, the court held that:
The doctrine of “last seen” means that the law presumes that the person last seen with a deceased person bears full responsibility for his death.
Thus where an accused person was the last person to be seen in the company of the deceased and circumstantial evidence is overwhelming and leads to no other conclusion, there is no room for acquittal.
The doctrine of last seen is an exception to the rule of presumption of innocence contained in Section 36(5) of the 1999 CFRN (as amended).
It is quite evident that in our criminal justice system, the general position is that the burden of proving an act or omission rests on the prosecution who proves its case beyond reasonable doubt. It never shifts as the law presumes the accused to be innocent until proven guilty.
This doctrine however has been applied in a plethora of cases, worthy of mention in the significant case of Igabele v. The State. (2006) 6 NWLR (Pt 975) pg 100.
The appellant was convicted of murder. The case of the prosecution was that the appellant motor driver and the deceased conductor both went out with their vehicle but did not return home.
The vehicle was later returned by another driver about four days later and the next day the owner of the vehicle reported the matter to the police. The body of the deceased was discovered about one month later with vital organs missing and the appellant was arrested about two months later.
The Appellant claimed that the deceased got out of the vehicle somewhere to see his brother but did not say where. Later, he said that the deceased fell off the vehicle somewhere and died.
The Supreme found and convicted the appellant. Oguntade JSC (as he then was) said:
I agree that in a criminal trial, the burden is always on the Prosecution to prove the guilt of the accused person beyond all reasonable doubt. Generally speaking, therefore, there is no duty on the accused to prove his innocence.
However, where circumstances arise, as in this case, some explanation may be required from the accused person as the facts against him are strong. Where he fails to offer such an explanation as happened in this case, his failure will support an inference of guilt against him”.
A strict application of this doctrine will cause hardship and therefore occasion a miscarriage of justice. It can be gathered from past decided cases that this rule provides an exception for a person who is caught up by the doctrine.
Now, it is said that such an exception imputes liability on the accused as it is the duty of the appellant to give an explanation relating to how the deceased met her death in such circumstances and in the absence of a satisfactory explanation, a trial court and an appellate court will be justified in drawing the inference that the accused person killed the deceased”.
A trial court can safely convict on such evidence. It is the duty of an accused person who is faced with compelling and damnifying circumstantial evidence to give an explanation relating to how the deceased met his death and in the absence of such an explanation, a trial court will be justified to hold that it was the accused who killed the deceased being the person last seen with him.
This Principle not alone found its judicial reinforcement in Nigeria’s criminal jurisprudence, its application is however extended globally and is well settled in the Indian case of Rajashkhanna v. State of A.P. (2006) 10 SCC 172
Thus, this doctrine is a subset of circumstantial evidence where the crux of the doctrine is holding the accused criminally liable for the circumstances in play.
It has also been outlined by scholars that the manifest application of this arm of circumstantial evidence gives no room for the consideration of other arms of evidence thus making the investigations one-sided.
Circumstantial evidence in criminal law is the proof of circumstances from which according to the ordinary course of human affairs, the existence of some fact may reasonably be presumed.
It is evidence of surrounding circumstances which by undersigned coincidence is capable of proving a proposition with mathematical exactitude, and that where direct evidence is unavailable.
While this doctrine invokes murder and manslaughter cases, time is of the essence in holding the accused person liable.
Where the time of the death of the deceased matches the time gap of his association with the accused person, the inference of guilt becomes so strong. But where the time gap of his association with the deceased is manifestly too remote then the inference of guilt becomes weak and infinitesimal.
As earlier stated in this paper this is a presumptive doctrine rebuttable by evidence.
- Challenges in the Application of this Doctrine in Nigeria
1. The doctrine may not provide a definitive conclusion regarding the cause of the death, thus necessitating a more robust scientific investigation.
2. The burden placed on a person last seen with a deceased may pose some biases and potential inconsistencies.
3. Relying solely on the Last-seen individual may overlook other potential suspects or factors that could have played a role in the death, resulting in an incomplete and potentially biased investigation. This too, may undermine fair trial rights and potentially lead to unfair outcomes.
4. Placing a burden on a person to explain the death of a person may infringe upon their right against self -incrimination.
5. This doctrine may also be influenced by socio-cultural biases rooted in stereotypes and prejudices where the assumption of the last seen individual is rooted in preconceived notions.
It is worth stating that notwithstanding the burden placed on the accused, to offer a sufficient explanation of what caused the death of the deceased, the doctrine will cause hardship and occasion the miscarriage of justice when the accused offers little or no explanation as to the cause of death bearing in mind that subjectively and objectively he may have never committed the act.
It is however recommended that other factors should be put in place and relied upon while finding the guilt of the accused and not just mere circumstantial evidence and by addressing these challenges, the legal system can uphold the principles of justice, protect individual rights, and establish a more reliable foundation for determining the truth in complex cases.
About the Author
Okeke Chukwuemeka is law Student of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University, Igbariam Campus. He is an Avid writer, Law enthusiast and a legal researcher.