Nigerian Exonerees Use Video to Fight Wrongful Imprisonment and Executions

By Madeleine May, N-Map Producer

Williams Owodo was 17 years old when he was falsely arrested for murder. He and his friends were playing soccer near his house when a fight broke out next to the field and a man was killed. When Owodo went to the police station to give a witness statement, he was tortured into signing a false confession stating he had killed the man. He was unable to afford a lawyer, and so at the trial, the judge sentenced him to die for his supposed crime. He spent 18 years in custody for a crime he did not commit.

“I was hopeless,” said Owodo. “At a point I almost committed suicide.”

Nigeria sentenced 659 people to die in 2014—at the time, this figure represented a quarter of all recorded death penalty convictions in the world.  Although Nigeria has not actually executed anyone on death row since 2013, the state continues to sentence more than 100 of its citizens to die every year. That places Nigeria among the top ten countries that have the highest rates of death sentences annually—including Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United States.  

Owodo’s conviction was taken on appeal by the Legal Defense and Assistance Project (LEDAP), a Nigerian legal aid NGO. In the last decade, LEDAP has litigated more than 210 capital offense cases. Seven out of 10 death penalty appeals that LEDAP has handled in the last two years have resulted in the acquittal of the appellant, according to Yusuf Abdul Kareem, an attorney at LEDAP.

LEDAP staff used cell phones to film the testimony of the exonerees after they had been released from prison. Chino Obiagw, LEDAP’s founder and director, approached N-Map with the idea of transforming these video clips into a longer advocacy video that could be shown at conferences and in private meetings with government officials. Such a video could be used to humanize the exonerees, because many Nigerians still think of them as criminals. The video would allow the men to speak about their experience in their own terms, to an audience of NGOs and legislatures they would not be able to reach otherwise.

We produced three videos in partnership with LEDAP in order to accomplish their advocacy goals. The first video, Faces of Death Row: Innocent Men Sentenced to Die utilized the cell phone footage to create sympathy for the exonerates, to show that the death penalty unfairly impacts the poor, and to demonstrate that a large proportion of those convicted for capital crimes are innocent. We chose quotes from their testimony that would bring the individuals to life—moments when they talked about their family, their innocence, their sadness and their outrage. We structured the video around the testimony and then utilized music, graphics, and statistics to keep the audience engaged in the advocacy argument. LEDAP screened this video this spring at a meeting with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Abuja, hosted by the Nigerian National Human Rights Commission.

We produced a second, “social media” video that LEDAP could share on its network to engage ally civil society organizations around the topic and change the climate of conversations around the death penalty. We looked to AJ+, the Guardian, and NowThis among others to see how we could tell a complicated story in a relatively short amount of time.

The third video, Innocent and Sentenced to Die: Wrongful Incarceration on Nigeria’s Death Row exclusively focused on the story of Williams Owodo, in an effort to answer the question, “How can an innocent person be convicted of a capital crime?” We traveled to Lagos to met Owodo, and he took us to the soccer field where the man had been murdered. By focusing on one individual’s experience—from arrest, to signing a forced confession, to conviction, to appeal—we could show audiences the ease by which innocent people can be sentenced to die within Nigeria’s criminal justice system.

In the coming months, LEDAP will distribute these videos to the specific audiences who are stakeholders in the conversation about the death penalty. The social-media video can be shared among LEDAP’s peers and allies in order to put public pressure on officials. The longer videos can be used in private meetings with legislators, or in conferences, as a way to involve the voices of the men whose lives were irrevocably impacted by the failures of the Nigerian state. Through these videos, Owodo and the other exonerates can speak directly to those who have the power to create the policy that will prevent wrongful incarcerations and executions. No one else should be sentenced to die for a crime they did not commit.

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