Presumption of Innocence of an Accused Person under the Nigerian System of Criminal Justice by Leesi Ebenezer Mitee
Copyright © 2011 Leesi Ebenezer Mitee
The Nigerian accusatorial or adversary system of criminal justice pivots on the statutory presumption of innocence of an accused person until the prosecution proves his guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Section 36(5) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 secures this presumption:
(5) Every person who is charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed to be innocent until he is proved guilty:
Provided that nothing in this section shall invalidate any law by reason only that the law imposes upon any such person the burden of proving particular facts.
Article 7(1)(b) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights 1981 also guarantees this presumption:
1. Every individual shall have the right to have his cause heard. This comprises:(a) the right to an appeal to competent national organs against acts of violating his fundamental rights as recognised and guaranteed by conventions, laws, regulations and customs in force;(b) the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty by a competent court or tribunal;(c) the right to defence, including the right to be defended by counsel of his choice;
(d) the right to be tried within a reasonable time by an impartial court or tribunal.
Section 135 of the new Nigerian Evidence Act 2011 (section 138 of the repealed Nigerian Evidence Act 1945, Cap. E14 of the Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1990) casts the burden of proving the guilt of an accused person on the prosecution who alleges that the accused person has committed an offence, and specifies the degree of such proof: beyond reasonable doubt. It provides:
135. (1) If the commission of a crime by a party to any proceeding is directly in issue in any proceeding civil or criminal, it must be proved beyond reasonable doubt.
(2) The burden of proving that any person has been guilty of a crime or wrongful act is, subject to the provisions of section 141 of this Act, on the person who asserts it, whether the commission of such act is or is not directly in issue in the action.
(3) If the prosecution prove the commission of a crime beyond reasonable doubt, the burden of proving reasonable doubt is shifted on to the accused.
The Supreme Court of Nigeria held as follows in Ahmed v The State (1999) 7 NWLR (Part 612) 641 at 673:
“It is a cardinal principle in criminal proceedings that the burden of proving a fact which if proved would lead to the conviction of the accused is on the prosecution who should prove such fact beyond reasonable doubt. In criminal cases, any doubt, as to the guilt of the accused, arising from the contradictions in the prosecution’s evidence of vital issues must be resolved in favour of the accused person.”
Earlier the Court of Appeal had also held in Ibrahim v State (1995) 3 NWLR (Part 381) 35 that the law vests the responsibility to prove the accused guilty on the prosecution beyond reasonable doubt. It is not part of the system of our law that an accused person should prove his innocence.