It’s A Wrap

One of the many ways in which Uganda’s court management structures differs from ours is in its heavy use of Registrars – lawyers who aren’t yet judges (but who will be in the future) exercise a fair number of judicial functions.  For example, the Criminal Court does most of its work in sessions – groups of forty cases that are scheduled for trial over the course of forty days.  The Registrar chooses which of the thousands of prisoners “on remand” will be “cause listed” for that next session.  A case being cause listed triggers the right to have an attorney appointed for those in the session.  The money allocated for the session (40,000,000 shillings, about 13K USD) is sent to the Registrar to administer.  1M goes to the judge, 500,000 to the Registrar, 250,000 each to the judge’s body guard and driver, about 10M to the lawyers for the forty defendants, etc.  Those who allege corruption occurs in the administration of justice often point to the relative trust placed in the Registrars when the session funds are released.

For nearly two years, there was no substantive Chief Registrar – the one supervising the various Registrars.  Vacancies in important roles litter the Ugandan judiciary, including in the Supreme Court (about five), Court of Appeals (about eight), and in the High Court (about thirty).  But last year – just before we began our prison pilot project, Paul Gadenya was moved into this position from his post as Chief Technical Advisor of the Justice, Law, and Order Sector (umbrella organization over eighteen different departments affecting law and justice (judiciary, prisons, police, prosecution, department of justice, etc.)).  As Chief Registrar, Paul basically runs the trial court system and is fourth in the official judicial hierarchy below the Chief Justice, Deputy Chief Justice, and Principal Judge, which is why we wanted to interview him for the documentary, so he could reflect back upon the progress toward implementation of plea bargaining that had been made since last summer.

As I knew he would be, Paul was terrific.  He is really smart, thoughtful, and well-spoken.  He doesn’t sugar coat the challenges Uganda faces, but remains optimistic about the future of his country and about its full-scale integration of plea bargaining.  He reported that since the Pepperdine prison project involving 160 cases at Luzira last summer, more than one thousand additional cases have been plea bargained by Ugandans, and the momentum is building to increase the pace.

After Paul, the crew filmed Andrew Khaukha, who works for both Paul and the Principal Judge to implement their vision of country-wide plea bargaining.  More than anyone, Andrew is making this happen with his dogged determination and strategic planning.  His will be an important voice in the film.

After we watched the rough cut of the documentary that was prepared after last summer’s filming, it became clear that the last chapter of the story was missing.  There needed to be an answer to the question raised by several of our students – sure, we interviewed 160 prisoners and prepared case summaries, but what would happen after we left?  Would these prisoners really get the access to justice they sought?  Would there be any lasting change?

These questions were partially answered by the interviews we captured in which the talking heads told us how much difference we had made, but what wanted even more than these answers were stories of real prisoners who had benefited.

So from the High Court, we returned to the Luzira prison complex where most of last summer’s filming took place.  This complex houses Luzira Upper, which is the maximum security prison, Murchison Bay, the medium security prison, and Luzira Women’s, where about four hundred women are on remand or serving out their sentences for violent crimes.  Last summer, we prepared 160 combined cases from all three prisons, though we filmed exclusively at the maximum security prison.

During my prior visit to Uganda about three months ago, I had attended a consensus-building workshop at which the latest draft of the plea bargaining practice directions (guidelines) were being discussed.  At this meeting, one of the prisoners from Murchison Bay named Rashid had been asked to speak about what plea bargaining meant to him the other prisoners.  I had been blown away by the clarity with which he articulated the reasons he and his fellow inmates benefited from plea bargaining – reasons that went well beyond the fact that he received a shorter sentence than he feared if had gone to trial.  He explained that the uncertainty of not knowing when, if ever, he would go to court, not knowing when, if ever, he would get a lawyer, and not knowing when, if ever, he would be released was crippling him and his fellow inmates socially, psychologically, and spiritually.

When he was finished speaking at that workshop, I knew we needed to interview him for the film.  With Andrew’s assistance, we secured permission to go to Murchison Bay to ask the warden if we could interview Rashid for our film.  Fortunately, the warden (Savestino) had been with me in Louisiana two months ago for a study tour of best practices in moral rehabilitation.  He was also eager for plea bargaining to continue because he saw firsthand the positive impact on prison morale, so he readily agreed to allow us to interview Rashid.

Because Rashid had read from a prepared text a few months ago, I wasn’t sure how well he would be able to tell his story without reading it.  When they brought him to the warden’s office, his eyes lit up when he saw me.  When I introduced myself, he smiled and said, “I know who you are – you came here to tell us about plea bargaining more than a year ago before the team of lawyers came last year.  I also saw you at the conference at the country club.”  That was a good sign.  I told him we wanted to ask him some questions and I asked him if he still had his notes from when he spoke.  He again smiled and said in perfect English, “I have it all in my head – I can talk about it all day long.”

The interview went exceptionally well.  He nailed every question and explained that he is so excited to be reunited with his daughter on March 23, 2019 – he is counting the days now that he has a release date.

Rashid embracing his future (Photo by Rob Hauer)

Rashid embracing his future (Photo by Rob Hauer)

Andrew had also told us that two women we had interviewed at Luzira Women’s Prison had been released during the last year.  Both had been resettled to Mubende, about three hours from Kampala.  Our hope on Friday was to track down one or both of them so they could tell their story of how the plea bargaining program set them free.  But in order to do this, we needed to capture a slice of life in the women’s prison, which we didn’t have time to get last time, in order to set up the contrast.  So we got permission from the warden there and filmed about an hour of daily life at this prison.  As we were about to leave, we heard some faint singing coming from one of the cell blocks, so we went to investigate.  Ten minutes later, we were in the middle of the cell block surrounding by fifty jubilant women dancing, playing plastic drums (using a bucket), and singing their hearts out about their Savior who rescues them.  We recorded for about fifteen minutes, then shifted to the next cell block over who wanted us to record them singing.  We now have a soundtrack for the film that is causing me to tear up just writing this as I remember the passion and joy in their eyes and their voices.

Thursday night, I had dinner at my favorite restaurant with our Pepperdine students, who were finishing their summer internships the next day, and our Nootbaar Fellows, who will be in Uganda for another few months.  (Earlier that day, I had another productive meeting at the US Embassy about possible funding for some of the projects we are working on).

Farewell dinner with the Pepperdine Interns

Farewell dinner with the Pepperdine Interns

On Friday morning, we completed our final interview, which was of the Principal Judge, who is the Chair of the Plea Bargaining Task Force, and the architect of the nation-wide roll-out of plea bargaining.  As always, he was clear and determined, and grateful for the partnership between our institutions.

At about ten, we set out in search of the two women who had been released.  By four, it was clear we wouldn’t find them, even with the help of a local prison officer.  We did get the phone number of one of them, who told Andrew that she had relocated to Wakiso, about forty-five minutes outside of Kampala.  We decided to reload and renew our search on Saturday morning, but time was running short, as we were set to fly home Saturday evening.

At 1:00 a.m. Saturday morning, Henry arrived into Kampala after finishing his final examination of his first year of medical school that afternoon in Ishaka – six hours away.  We chatted for a few minutes before catching a few hours of sleep in advance of setting out for a second day of searching for the released prisoner.

By 10:00 a.m., we had found her.  She was thrilled to see Andrew, whom she remembered from his many trips to the prison informing her and her fellow inmates about plea bargaining.  Since being released from prison, after spending four years on remand, she had been “born again” and was serving as an associate pastor for her village church.  She was also reunited with her nine-year old daughter, from whom she had been estranged prior to being arrested for her minor involvement in a mob killing of a thief.  During the plea bargaining program, she had pled guilty to manslaughter (she hit the deceased with a stick after a group of male villagers had beaten him thoroughly – he died a few days later), and was sentenced to time served.  Needless to say, she was thrilled to be out and living a new life.

Christine telling her story (Photo by Rob Hauer)

Christine telling her story (Photo by Rob Hauer)

After the on-camera interview, we found out what her monthly rent was and paid three months’ worth.  She was exuberant and sang a song, along with a few others as back-up, called “Webale Jesu” – Thank You, Jesus (for Redeeming Me).  Her voice was almost as beautiful as the lyrics.  It was a rather emotional moment, to say the least.  My prediction is that the film will end with her singing this song.

Webalu Jesu

Webale Jesu

Following Christine’s interview, we drove to the Wentz Medical Clinic where my family assisted the Gregstons (our Twin Family) in 2012, and where my two youngest helped a few weeks ago.  The crew shot some “B-roll” of Henry walking around in his lab coat to show that Henry is now entering the clinical stages of his medical training.  When we finished filming last summer, Henry’s goal to attend medical school was just a dream, so capturing him a year later as an actual student closes the loop in a very uplifting way.

Just before we left, Michelle Abnet (Revolution Pictures Producer) had the idea of taking a couple pictures with the wood carvings I commissioned when I arrived in Uganda three weeks ago, and had received back the night before.

"Remand" is the title of the documentary.

“Remand” is the title of the documentary.

It was so great to spend the day with Henry again, and to be able to celebrate in person his exoneration on all charges that had been pending for over five years.  Our dear friends, Colin and Amy Batchelor, had sent with me some money to allow Henry to have a proper celebratory party with his family on Saturday night, which is the first time he will have seen them since we received the favorable ruling three weeks ago.

Thanks for following along.  My final edits on the book (“Divine Collision”) are due in about a week, and the publication date has been set for January 26, 2016.

Earlier Than Immediately

One of my greatest regrets over the five years I’ve been coming to Uganda is that I haven’t visited the US Embassy in Kampala more often to keep them updated on what Pepperdine is doing in Uganda.  During my first trip, in January of 2010, our group met with Ambassador Jerry Lanier shortly after we arrived.  I will always remember what he said: “During your stay in Uganda, you will learn more about the United States than you will about Uganda.”

He was right.

It is easy to take for granted all that we have in the United States that Uganda lacks – reliable electricity, easy access to clean water, navigable roads, consistent internet and phone signals, a responsive public justice system, etc.  It is only when one experiences their absence does one truly appreciate their presence.

During my last trip to Uganda in April of this year – my sixteenth – I visited the Embassy for only the second time in five years.  This past Monday, I returned to the Embassy for the third time and brought with me the presenters for the National Plea Bargaining Conference – judges Beverly Reid O’Connell and Tricia Bigelow, public defenders Melissa Mertens and Lisa Brackelmanns, federal prosecutor John Cotton Richmond, former prosecutors Alan Jackson and Will Lathrop, OU law professor Michael Scaperlanda, American lawyer practicing in Zambia Sara Larios, and Global Justice Program Coordinator Jenna Anderson.

Our counterparts for this meeting at the Embassy were two United States political officers and a Makerere University Law Professor who provides valuable local insight and guidance for the Embassy.  Our meeting lasted about 90 minutes and mostly involved us briefing them about what Pepperdine has been doing with and in Uganda for the past eight years, and one of the Embassy’s political officers expressing his frustration and skepticism about the prospects of immediate changes in the political/judicial structure of the country due to endemic corruption.  (Not two days later, the President’s two main opponents in the upcoming February, 2016 election, were both arrested the same day on their way to separate political rallies under the Public Order Management Act, which one of these opponents championed and employed while recently serving as the Prime Minister of Uganda).  I, of course, understood the political officer’s perspective, but have a decidedly more favorable view of the future of the judiciary.

At the end of the meeting, the Embassy representatives offered to put me in touch with their colleagues at the USAID portion of the Embassy, which is the arm that funds various projects aimed at assisting Uganda in improving its economy, health, and justice system, among other sectors.

Our team spent the next few hours on Monday finalizing preparation for the next day’s conference, and then we all (including our students, but less a portion of our prison project group who flew home on Sunday evening) attended a dinner at our hotel hosted by the Principal Judge of Uganda.

The national conference kicked off the next morning only about forty minutes late, which is early for Uganda conferences.  The Director of Public Prosecutions, Mike Chibita, opened the conference with a speech about how and why plea bargaining will assist in delivering the rule of law to Uganda, and how important Pepperdine’s partnership is to this enterprise.  He was followed by Matt Bunt from the US Embassy, then Principal Judge Bamwine.

Conference just before kick off

Conference just before kick off

Principal Judge Bamwine in his opening remarks

Principal Judge Bamwine in his opening remarks

Finally, newly appointed Chief Justice Bart Katureebe officially opened the conference.  He thanked those in attendance, gave his strong blessing to the rapid and wide-spread adoption of plea bargaining, and pledged to deepen and expand the relationship between the Judiciary and Pepperdine through his visit to Malibu this fall.

After nearly a year of planning, it was go time.

I took the microphone, provided a brief history of Pepperdine’s relationship with Uganda to the 150+ judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and other government officials in attendance, and then introduced the team.  I gave an overview of the conference itinerary and then ceded the microphone to Melissa Mertens, who acted as the narrator for each scene of the seven-part re-enactment of the plea bargaining process, covering arrest through sentencing.

After each scene, I would retake the microphone and walk the crowd through what they observed and what they should learn from each scene.  I did this by calling on select members of our team to explain what had just happened and why, and then I would try to put this into the context of the Ugandan criminal justice system with which I have now had substantial experience.  Before we transitioned to the next scene, Lisa Brackelmanns would explain how and why things would be different if the defendant were a juvenile.

Scene one of our simulation opened in the prosecutor’s office with the police officer presenting his report to the prosecutor (our hypothetical case was based upon one we encountered the prior week and involved the killing of one neighbor by another over a land boundary dispute), allowing the prosecutor to decide what charges to file.  IJM Gulu Field Office Director, Will Lathrop, played the role of the police officer and John Richmond played the prosecutor.  This report was completed within 48 hours of arrest so the suspect could be arraigned within that time period.  In Uganda, police reports are usually completed several weeks or months after arrest while the suspect waits in jail.

Scene two began in the courtroom when the defendant was informed of the charges against him and assigned a lawyer to represent him.  Judge O’Connell played the role of the judge – decked out in the Ugandan wig and red robe – John Richmond continued his role as prosecutor, Alan Jackson played the defense lawyer, and one of our students (Costa) played the defendant.  In Uganda, the defendant is not provided a lawyer until just before trial (up to five years after arrest), rather than during the initial court appearance within 48 hours of arrest, as is the case in our public defender system.  We must have encouraged them to adopt such a system on twenty different occasions during the conference.  Indeed, there is a bill that has been languishing in Parliament for three years that would do just that.

Scene three took place back in the prison where the defense lawyer met with the defendant to explain the evidence against the defendant that the prosecution provided to the defense lawyer within a few days of arrest.  During this scene, the defense lawyer also presented the defendant with the prosecution’s plea offer in this case (18 years on the hypothetical murder charge).  In Uganda, the defendant is entitled to the evidence against him, but there is no specificity of when and what type of evidence.  And since the defendant doesn’t get a lawyer until just before trial, these “disclosures” rarely occur until then because there is no one to whom the evidence could be given.  Likewise, because the defendant rarely has a lawyer, the prosecution can’t begin plea negotiations because there is no one to bargain with.

Scene four occurred in the prosecutor’s office where the defense lawyer explained to the prosecution the weaknesses in its case, raised the defenses that would be asserted at trial, and offered (in accordance with the wishes of his client) a plea offer of ten years on charges of manslaughter, reduced from murder.  After a back and forth, the prosecution agreed to the manslaughter, but only if the sentence term was twelve years.

Scene five took place back at the prison where the defense lawyer talked through the prosecution’s counter to the defendant’s counter-offer with the defendant and explained that the two years the defendant had been “on remand” would be credited year for year, thus reducing the 12 years to 10 more, if the deal was accepted.  The defendant accepted the offer.

In scene six, the lawyers met in the judge’s chambers and informed her they had reached a plea agreement and what it entailed.  The judge asked a few broad questions about the case, and then told the counsel to go out into open court where the agreement would be memorialized on the record.

Finally, the setting for the scene seven was in open court where, before taking the plea and entering the sentence, the judge invited the surviving spouse in our murder scenario to present a victim impact statement.  The role of the grieving widow was played by our own Justice Bigelow who, while dressed in a traditional Ugandan dress and head scarf, provided a moving and entertaining monologue about how much she misses her husband, and how much the defendant should pay for his crime.

Justice Bigelow providing Oscar Worthy performance as Judge "O'Connell" looks on

Justice Bigelow providing Oscar-worthy performance as Judge O’Connell looks on

Judge O’Connell thanked her for her testimony, took the defendant’s guilty plea, and then sentenced him to the twelve years (minus the two served) that had been agreed upon.

Over the next hour, I moderated a lively Q and A session.

Gettin' worked up

Gettin’ worked up

After lunch, we divided the attendees into small groups, each consisting of a High Court Judge, a prosecutor, and a few other lawyers to represent the accused.  We assigned them a fact pattern based upon a case we had encountered the week before and turned them loose in various parts of the hotel to see if they could negotiate a deal and present it to their assigned judge.  They got so into the exercise that it took us an extra half hour to get them to come out of their groups to report their results.

We closed with a little more Q and A, and an excellent speech by Justice Kiryabwire, who is the Ugandan liaison to the Pepperdine/Uganda Memorandum of Understanding.  In preparing for his speech, he had pulled from his files the original memorandum written by our two students (Greer Illingworth and Micheline Zamora) urging Uganda to consider plea bargaining.  Providentially, it had been written exactly seven years earlier, to the day – July 7, 2008.

Before we departed, our Ugandan friends presented us with some gifts, including Uganda Cranes soccer jerseys.  More about the conference was reported locally here.

Later that night, we had dinner with a group of judges and other government officials who have visited Pepperdine – a number that has now swelled to nearly thirty.

Justice Bigelow and Judge O'Connell with Former CJ Odoki and Justice K

Justice Bigelow and Judge O’Connell with Former CJ Odoki and Justice K at post-conference dinner

The next morning, the film crew interviewed the Solicitor General of Uganda, and the Commissioner General of Prisons.

"Earlier than Immediately"

“Earlier than Immediately”

In the latter’s interview, he stressed that plea bargaining needs to be fully implemented throughout the country right away – in his words, this needs to happen “earlier than immediately.”

In the afternoon, the conference team had one last meeting with the top brass at the prosecutor’s office to answer follow-up questions after the conference.  That night, everyone except me and the film crew flew home.  We still had three more days of filming to do in order to wrap up the documentary.

What we captured over the next three days far exceeded our hopes.

I, The Dung Beetle

I find myself in an increasingly familiar location as I write this long-overdue update on our team’s Ugandan prison project and plea bargaining conference – in the KLM Lounge in Amsterdam.  Nineteen days have blown by, and I have only had the time to summarize the first eight days.  Where I left off on Thursday, July 2nd, we had just completed four days of case preparation in three prisons – Mbale, Tororo, and Soroti – all in Eastern Uganda.  In the Mbale prison, more than 75% of the prisoners were “on remand” – waiting for something to happen.  No lawyer, no court date, no sense of the evidence against them, and dwindling hope.

Friday the 3rd started very early (again), as our group of about thirty-five American lawyers, Pepperdine law students, Uganda Christian University students, drivers, and armed body guards piled into a bus, a van, and a truck for the two-hour drive from Soroti to Lira.  As in the other cities, our morning began at the courthouse where the resident judge in this district hosted a ceremonial launch of our work at the prison.  We always closed these ceremonies with a prayer, usually led by one of our students or lawyers.

From the courthouse, we headed to the prison and broke into our groups, each consisting of a Ugandan lawyer (from the local practicing bar), an American lawyer, a Pepperdine student, and a UCU student.

Insert your own clever quip here . . .

Insert your own clever quip here . . .

As usual, we had the case file of evidence against some of the defendants we interviewed, and only a flimsy conclusory indictment for others.  Also as usual, Tennessee prosecutor Emily Smith (’10) and former LA prosecutor Alan Jackson (’94) broke off in the late morning for some focused training of the local Ugandan prosecutors.

Around 1:00 p.m., we paused for the typical Ugandan lunch of matooke, ground nut sauce, rice, anemic chicken, spongy beef, and assorted vegetables.  (This same fare was served each evening at our hotel also).   By the end of the week, the American lawyers were eager for something that looked and tasted familiar, or . . . not so familiar).

As was also our custom, in the mid-afternoon, a group of us broke off from the others to re-enact four stages of the plea bargaining process for the judges, magistrates, prosecutors, and defense lawyers in town, which was followed by a spirited question and answer session.  On each occasion, the entire group unequivocally embraced the plea bargaining program that they now understood and could apply.  We always left encouraged.

That evening, we continued our tradition of hosting a dinner at our hotel for the judges, magistrates, prosecutors, and defense lawyers so that the conversation and relationship building could continue.  By the end of the night, we were exhausted, but quite satisfied that we had accomplished our goals.

As we were heading to bed in Lira on Friday night, the second wave of team members were arriving in Kampala.  Federal District Court Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell and California Appellate Justice Tricia Bigelow were given special treatment at the airport – pulled into the VIP lounge and then given a police escort, complete with sirens and honking that parted the gridlocked traffic, reducing the two-hour drive to just over thirty minutes.

A little while later, John Cotton Richmond (US DOJ Human Trafficking Prosecutor) arrived with the film crew, who returned to Uganda to finish the documentary called “Remand” that began last summer.  That crew also received a police escort back to the hotel, which differed greatly from last year’s three-hour detention at the airport.

On Saturday morning, both groups set out from their respective destinations for Murchison Falls National Park for a celebratory 24 hours at the Paraa Safari Lodge.  This weekend served as an appropriate transition point from the intensive and gritty prison work to the philosophical and relational work with the policy makers, high level implementers, and funding sources for the expansion of plea bargaining to the entire country.

After checking into the spacious, western lodge, we hustled the quarter mile down to the Nile River to climb aboard a double-decker river boat for the three-mile cruise to the base of Murchison Falls.  While this was my third such cruise, the first timers were enthralled to be floating on the same river Moses traveled in a basket in Egypt so long ago.  We saw hundreds of hippos and water buffaloes, scores of rare birds, a handful of crocodiles, and soaked in the grandeur of God’s creation.

Murchison Falls

Murchison Falls

Murchison Hippo Resized

That evening, the team of presenters gathered over dinner to finalize the agenda for Tuesday’s national conference.  Over the course of the week, our plans had evolved away from the “Sage at the Stage” idea of presenting PowerPoints and gravitated toward a full-blown re-enactment of how the plea bargaining process works from arrest through sentencing, supplemented by robust discussion between each scene.

We awoke early Sunday morning for a game drive throughout the park in four safari vehicles.

Prison Project-1938

Lion Cub in a Tree

Lion Cub in a Tree

While the lions, elephants, giraffes, and antelope were great to see, my favorite encounter was with a dung beetle.

I, The Dung Beetle

I, The Dung Beetle

This little guy worked slavishly for hours (days?) to shape a perfectly round ball of animal excrement about twenty times his size.  His mate then clamped onto the dung ball and went for a ride.  The male pushes the dung along the road until he finds to a place where the female can lay her eggs inside the dung ball where they can grow, the dung providing the nutrients needed.  As we watched, this male beetle rolled his ball of dung for about three minutes until he got to a place he wanted to go.  He then flipped upside down and pushed with his hind legs as the ball slowly moved up the lip of the road, only to shift slightly and then roll back down.  Again and again he tried, only to be met with the same fate.  Eventually, we left in search of other wildlife.  I choose to believe that all of his effort eventually paid off and he was successful in fully accomplishing his task.

While (thankfully) not a perfect analogy, I identify with this little guy as he pushes and pushes, trying to get to the right place with the right people coming along so that the task can be accomplished.  Too many times I have felt the ball rolling back downhill.  As will be clear in my next post, however, I have no doubt that the ball has rolled up and over the barrier and we are now reaping the fruits of our labors.

Giving Birth

The idea of adopting a system of plea bargaining in order to expedite the criminal justice process for those arrested and detained in Uganda was conceived seven years ago during the summer internship of two Pepperdine law students – Greer Illingworth and Micheline Zamora.  The birthing process has been slow, but steady, during the gestation period.  We assisted with the rollout in the juvenile realm in recent years, and with several pilot programs in the adult realm.

This week, it truly feels like the delivery is nearly complete as our team of two dozen lawyers (mostly Pepperdine alums) and Pepperdine law students work hand in hand with Ugandan law students and lawyers to bring access to justice for about 150 Ugandan prisoners.

We started out on Monday in Mbale, a rural city in Eastern Uganda near the border with Kenya.  After a small ceremony at the Mbale High Court presided over by the two High Court judges resident in Mbale, we drove out to the prison to meet the thirty prisoners who indicated a desire to negotiate a plea deal in exchange for a guilty plea.  We assembled into our seven pre-assigned teams, each consisting of at least one American lawyer, one Pepperdine law student, and one Uganda Christian University law student, and waited for the Ugandan lawyers to arrive.

And waited.

The Ugandans are wonderfully friendly and welcoming people, but they are not burdened by the virtue of promptness.  About an hour later, one arrived.  And then another.  Fully two hours after we were supposed to begin, each group finally had a lawyer.  Over the course of about 60-90 minutes each, the team interviewed the prisoners, explained to them the concept of plea bargaining, and discussed whether the prisoner was interested in accepting the prosecutor’s offers that had been communicated that morning.

Over the next six hours, the team got through their thirty cases.  My role was to direct traffic, answer questions, and liaise with our Ugandan judiciary counterparts, chief among them is Andrew Khaukha, without whom this bus wouldn’t be rolling forward.  By the end of the day, another twenty or so prisoners had come forward wanting to engage in plea negotiations.  That night, the students and lawyers worked quite late into the evening summarizing their interviews.

Allison Brown — junior at Abilene Christian University, daughter of team member Alan Brown, and overall project MVP — helped Jenna Anderson (works with me at Pepperdine) manage the case files (both physical and digital), and captured in pictures much of what we were doing.

Alan Brown and his team

Alan Brown and his team

Emily Smith and her team

Emily Smith and her team

Melissa Mertens with a prison guard

Melissa Mertens with a prison guard

OU Professor Michael Scaperlanda and his team

OU Professor Michael Scaperlanda and his team

Huddling up with Alan Jackson

Huddling up with Alan Jackson

Directing Traffic

Directing Traffic

On Tuesday, we engaged in the same process at the Tororo prison, which is about one hour outside of Mbale.  The Ugandan lawyers weren’t quite as late, but only three of the promised seven showed up.  This meant that we needed to proceed with the case preparations in their absence and then connect the clients with their lawyers after the interviews were completed.  Once again, numerous other prisoners joined in the process as the day progressed.  For the first time in our series of pilot programs over the years, we actually executed plea agreements on the spot in the prison.  This marked a huge step forward in the Ugandans’ embracing of plea bargaining practice, in addition to theory.  This was followed by another late night of case preparation.

Wednesday morning had us back in the Mbale prison because there were so many new additions to the project.  Fully 75% of the 450 inmates at the Mbale prison are “on remand,” which means they are incarcerated while they wait for a court date to be scheduled, which is the trigger for an assignment of a lawyer.  Some wait five years or more for this to happen.  They are tired of waiting.

In the afternoon, we returned to the Ugandan High Court trial courtroom for a training program for the Ugandan judges and lawyers.  This consisted of a re-enactment of the plea bargaining process from start to finish.  LA Public Defender, Melissa Mertens, played the role of narrator and court clerk.  Tennessee prosecutor, Emily Smith, played the role of prosecutor.  Former LA district attorney/now private defense lawyer, Alan Jackson, played the role of defense lawyer.  Midland, Texas-based oil and gas lawyer, Alan Brown, played the role of a criminal defendant who had been charged with murder.  And yours truly played the role of judge.

The re-enactment started in the prison as the two Alans discussed the case, including the prosecutor’s offer.  It then moved into the prosecutor’s offer where an agreement was reached.  From there we moved into the judge’s chambers for an informal discussion, finally finishing by taking the plea on the record in open court.  This was followed by an extensive Q and A.  The feedback we received was quite favorable.

After this role-playing re-enactment, we spent a heartbreaking hour visiting the Mbale juvenile remand home.  I had worked in four remand homes in the past, including this one, but most others hadn’t experienced the desperate conditions endured by juvenile prisoners.  While this was mostly a social visit, we were able to assure them that their cases would be added to the next court session a few weeks from now.  As we left, we pitched in enough money to allow the staff to provide them with a big feast the following day, breaking the drudgery of corn meal and beans that they have every day.

Mbale Remand Home

Mbale Remand Home

Thursday morning, we left Mbale at 6:30 a.m. to travel farther north to Soroti, where we spent the day at the Soroti prison doing the same thing as the prior days.  Fortunately, word is traveling well, so we had nine Ugandan lawyers meet us at the prison, and most arrived within an hour of the scheduled start time.  We also conducted another simulated plea bargaining session at the High Court building in the afternoon, and all twenty-five of the lawyers in town attended and engaged in an exceptionally encouraging question and answer session after we finished.

From the High Court, we headed back to the prison to finalize some tasks and to take a group photo.  As we were leaving and about to board our bus, two prisoners assisted a cow in giving birth – right there in front of us – to a baby calf.

The symbolism was lost on no one.

As I write this at 11:00 p.m., half of the team is hard at work finishing their case summaries from today and preparing for our visit to the Lira prison, even farther north.

Can You See Me Now?

Anticipation hovers like a humid fog enveloping the brand new hotel complex in Mbale Monday morning as twelve Pepperdine students and ten American lawyers prepared to join their counterparts from Uganda Christian University and the Mbale legal bar to work arm in arm on behalf of prisoners “on remand” at the Mbale prison.  While these prisoners have been charged with capital crimes (those eligible for the death penalty), none has been convicted of anything, and none has even met with a lawyer since being arrested one to five years ago.  I am confident our anxiety is dwarfed by theirs right now.

Two days earlier on Saturday morning, a small team of American criminal lawyers (Alan Jackson, Melissa Mertens, Emily Smith, and I) met with a Ugandan task force developing guidelines that will govern the use of video technology in the courtroom.  More specifically, the guidelines set out when video technology can be used to substitute for live appearance in court by defendants for pre-trial hearings, and by witnesses in court cases.

Video Conference Meeting

Video Conference Meeting

At the end of the meeting, we simulated such a court appearance via Skype.  Alan played the judge, Emily the prosecutor, Melissa the defense lawyer, and, appropriately, I was the defendant accused of stealing a boda boda (motorcycle).  “Judge Alan’s” first question, “can you see me now?,” kicked off the simulated hearing.  Everyone left the meeting convinced that this time-saving, money-saving, and security-enhancing procedure will soon be implemented to good effect.

The next day (Sunday), we departed the capital city of Kampala mid-morning in two vehicles – a thirty-seated mini-bus, and fourteen-passenger van.  In addition to our two drivers, we are accompanied at every step of the way by three armed guards.  (Our hotel compound is ringed by ten such guards each evening.  Our friends in the Judiciary are taking no chances with our safety).  Rather than driving the four hours to Mbale in one straight shot, we stopped at the halfway point in Jinja to eat and see the sights, including the Source of the Nile.

Any discussion about Ugandan geography inevitably begins with the fact that Uganda is home to the largest lake in the world, Lake Victoria, from which the longest river in the world, the Nile, begins its journey north to Egypt.  After a decades-long elusive search for the Nile’s source, a British explorer named Speke is credited with “discovering” what Stanley and Livingstone couldn’t find.  A monument is erected in honor of Speke.  Truth be told, of course, the locals had discovered the Source of the Nile long before the Europeans knew there was such a thing as the Nile.

On the phone the day before, we had been promised a large boat that would comfortably seat our group of twenty-three, which includes Abilene Christian University student Allison Brown, who has been carrying a heavy logistical load since she arrived with her lawyer/father Alan on Friday night.  The boat, however, wasn’t quite as warrantied.  As our group piled in on top of each other, the distance between the lip of boat and the surface of the water shrunk from feet to inches.

Because I had taken the one-hour boat tour of the area where Lake Victoria spawns the Nile, and because there were only three life jackets for our twenty-three team members, two armed guards, and two boat personnel, I selflessly volunteered to “supervise” the trip from up the hill on the ridge.

I'll Wait Up Top

I’ll Wait Up Top

I am such a giver.

While they were puttering around the basin, I called ahead and ordered twenty pizzas for our team and five fish for our Ugandan guards at the Adrift Adventures base camp where we headed after the boat road.  Adrift is home to the famous (infamous?) “Nile High Bungee” experience where those who have decided that braving the terrifying traffic and malaria-infested flocks of mosquitos falls distressingly short of a sufficient amount of risk to one’s personal health and wellbeing, and wants to supplement this appetite for adrenaline by, for the bargain-basement price of $115, plunging off a rickety platform 150 feet above the Nile.  It is reassuring to know that the bungee cord has been replaced since it last broke a couple years back, and the technical staff was extensively trained for many, many minutes before assuming their vital role in this enterprise.

Among our group were five thrill seekers, though truth be told, another ten of us (including yours truly) had previously tasted of these very fruits on a prior visit to Jinja.  (I chose not to become a repeat offender).  Just before they jumped, each thrill-seeker was instructed to waive for the cameras, as if to say “can you see me now?” to ensure that the moment was captured on film.


Fortunately, the two students and three lawyers who crossed off an item on their bucket list did so without injury or involuntary expelling any bodily fluids.  After lunch, we re-boarded and resumed our trek to Mbale.

After checking into our brand-new gated hotel complex, we enjoyed a group dinner with the Ugandan law students, prosecutors, defense lawyers, prison officials, and judicial officers with whom we will be partnering to complete our upcoming prison work.

Everyone is eager to plunge into the interviewing and plea bargaining that will commence on Monday morning.  This is our third such prison project in the adult realm, which we began in 2013 after three years of similar work in juvenile prisons known as Remand Homes.  We are trying a few new things this time, which we believe will further increase the efficiency of the criminal justice system.

More tomorrow.

Calm Before The Storm

I have lived the past three days in the calm before our team’s storm of activity here in Uganda.  But I haven’t been idle.  I arrived late Tuesday night after a relatively uneventful 24-hour journey, LAX to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Entebbe.  I have now made this journey seventeen times since 2010, but it doesn’t get any less tiresome on my aging body.

The first wave of the team will arrive this evening.  I went ahead of the rest so I could prepare a place and ensure that as many logistical details were nailed down as possible.  It was great to catch up on Wednesday with our nine students who are spending the summer here interning for various judicial officials – two in the Court of Appeals, two in the Family Division of the High Court, two in the Commercial Division, one in the Criminal Division, one in the Anti-Corruption Division, and one in the Department of Public Prosecutions.  In addition to the judges for whom they work, the students are loosely supervised by our two Nootbaar Fellows, both of whom are serving as court-annexed mediators – Jory Canfield in the Commercial Division and Megan Callaway in the Family Division.  They are 2014 Pepperdine Law graduates serving one-year terms.

After a full day of running errands and nailing things down, I had dinner with the Pepperdine interns and fellows on Wednesday evening, along with Court of Appeals Justice Kiryabwire (who is the Ugandan liaison under Pepperdine’s Memorandum of Understanding with the Ugandan Judiciary).  We were also joined by Judge Clifford Wallace of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  Judge Wallace, who is 86 years old and going strong, is here in Uganda for a week assisting the Ugandan Court of Appeals in evaluating whether appellate mediation should be implemented here, an idea hatched during an earlier visit to Pepperdine by various Ugandan Justices.

Dinner with the Pepperdine Interns

Dinner with the Pepperdine Interns

Thursday was another day of preparations, but was highlighted by an opportunity to see my youngest two kids, Joshua and Jennifer, who are here for two weeks with a group from their school – Oaks Christian High School.  The group is led by American doctors and nurses, who are partnering with Ugandan doctors and nurses on a mobile medical tour of schools and villages.  The kids are getting to help with registration and filling prescriptions, as well as providing spiritual care for those receiving treatment.  Joshua has been in the pharmacy the entire trip, while Jennifer has been registering patients and praying with them.

Joline and I have done plenty of things wrong in raising our kids, but we have succeeded in providing them opportunities to flourish in unfamiliar surroundings and to have confidence in God’s presence in their lives.  All three have risen to the occasion.

We briefly Skyped with Joline so she could see them, but Joshua and Jennifer felt guilty about getting to see their parents, while the others haven’t had the chance, so we snuck away from the others for the Skype call.

Before I went to bed on Thursday evening, some dark clouds began forming on our logistical planning.  The flight carrying two members of our team – Jenna Anderson, who works with me at Pepperdine in the Global Justice Program, and Eleanor deGolian, Atlanta-based lawyer – was delayed for one hour and forty minutes out of Atlanta, putting their two-hour connection in Amsterdam in serious jeopardy.  When I awoke this morning, the situation hadn’t changed.  They were in transit and weren’t sure if they would make the connection to join five other members of the team whom they were supposed to meet in Amsterdam for the final leg into Uganda.  These team members are Alan Jackson, former high-profile prosecutor in Los Angeles, Melissa Mertens, LA public defender, Emily Smith, Nashville prosecutor, Alan Brown, Midland lawyer, and Allison Brown, Alan’s daughter who attends my alma mater Abilene Christian University.

Via e-mail from the landing runway, Jenna notified me that she and Eleanor landed in Amsterdam about thirty minutes before the connecting flight, but their plane was unable to pull in because another was at their arrival gate.  Fiddlesticks! (as one of my former bosses used to say in situations where others would say something stronger).

I sent Jenna the flight information for the only other flight out of Amsterdam that would get her to Uganda in the next 24 hours (leaving forty minutes later) and prayed for their success in making the connection.  The plane finally pulled into the gate about ten minutes before takeoff of the original connecting flight.  As of the time I am writing this (two hours later), I haven’t heard anything more, which I am hoping is a good sign.

More tomorrow after our first meeting with a high-powered task force, which is creating guidelines for the introduction of video appearances in Ugandan court and video conferencing between lawyers and clients.  Adopting these new procedures promises to save lots of money and time, reduce security risks associated with bringing busloads (and sometimes cattle-truckloads) of prisoners to court, not to mention drastically increasing the communications between prisoners and their lawyers (who often don’t drive out to prison to meet with their clients in advance of trial).

Clean Slate

I will remember today for the rest of my life.  When I am old and can’t remember my name or even recognize my children, I will still remember today.

Seven years and one month ago, a 16 year-old Ugandan boy named Henry was arrested and charged with murder in conjunction with a mob killing of a thief.  After languishing for eighteen months in horrendous conditions in a juvenile prison waiting for the day when it would be indisputably revealed in court that he was in school when the killing occurred, Henry was charged with a second murder in conjunction with the death of a fellow prisoner.  One month later came the divine collision – when God sealed my life and Henry’s together.

After I and a small team of lawyers spent one week in January of 2010 preparing Henry’s and the other twenty juvenile inmates’ cases for trial, I returned to the United States pretty sure I would never return to Uganda.  But then Henry and I started talking on the phone once a week as he updated me on the progress of the cases.  Two months later, the original case for which he had been arrested was dismissed before the trial began because there was no evidence against him.  There never had been.

But when the second case went to trial, Henry was assigned the same lawyer as the adult matron who had also been charged with murder in conjunction with the death of Henry’s fellow inmate.  The matron faced a possible death sentence if convicted; Henry faced a possible three years.  Even though he represented both defendants, the lawyer called no witnesses to testify as to what had really happened – Henry wasn’t involved – but instead called the matron to testify against Henry, casting all of the blame for the unfortunate death on him.  Yes, the lawyer called to the stand one client to testify against his other client.  And after the matron testified against Henry, he didn’t cross-examine her.  Both were convicted in May of 2010.

Fortunately, Ugandan law doesn’t allow the High Court judge that tries juveniles for capital offenses to do the sentencing.  That task is borne by the magistrate judge, who in this case, had learned the truth about what had happened from those who were there.  Henry’s sentence was one year of probation.  But this wasn’t good enough for Henry or for me.  We wanted complete exoneration, so we appealed.

The Chief Justice of Uganda was kind enough to extend to me the privilege of arguing Henry’s appeal under an obscure Ugandan rule that allows him to grant a one-time exemption from the normal counsel rules – only the second time the provision has ever been used (the first was for a Kenyan).  After nearly three years of waiting, the oral argument was held on March 12, 2013.  After a few petrifying hiccups that threatened to further delay the case and remove me as counsel of record, the actual argument went according to plan, as discussed here.

Then we waited.  A few months after the argument, one of the three judges was elevated from the Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court.  Shortly thereafter, another of the judges became the Acting Chief Justice of the Country.  More than a year later, the case was reassigned to a new three-judge panel, but no further argument was scheduled.  Then we waited some more.

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from the lawyer for the prosecution letting me know that the judgment, at long last, was to be read on Friday, June 19th – three days before I am scheduled to head back to Uganda.  I called my co-counsel in Uganda and explored the possibility of seeking a delay in the court’s ruling so I could be there when it was read.  No dice – the ruling had been given to the Court Registrar for delivery, and it would be difficult (and probably insulting) to request a delay.

Because we are in the middle of filming a documentary about Pepperdine’s relationship with the Ugandan Judiciary, and because Henry’s case is a central part of the story, one of the filmmakers in Malibu (Craig Detweiler) and I agreed that we should film me learning of the verdict.  Whichever way it turned out, it would be real.

The ruling was scheduled to be read at 9:30 a.m., Uganda time, which is 11:30 p.m. my time.  I knew it would be late, and I knew it would be a few hours before my co-counsel could get a copy, scan it, and then send it to me.  So I went to bed after praying for the tenth time that day for good results, or strength and stamina if the results weren’t so good.  Before I went to bed, I downloaded a program that would digitally record through my computer both ends of the Skype call I was scheduled to have with Henry right after I read the ruling.

This morning, Joline checked my e-mail to ensure the ruling had arrived.  It had, but she didn’t open it.  A couple hours later, Craig Detweiler and Kathryn Linehan set up two cameras in our dining room to capture the moment.

Capturing the Moment

Capturing the Moment

I double-clicked the document to open the PDF and started reading the ten-page ruling.  Appellate rulings in the United States immediately announce the judgment, and then run through the rationale for the ruling.  Uganda takes a different approach.  The ruling started with a summary of the evidence presented at trial, and then set forth the trial court’s verdict.  I was so anxious to get to the result, I didn’t even read this first section.  Next came the three grounds for appeal we urged.  Immediately, the court rejected the first and third relating to the sufficiency of the evidence.  I swallowed hard and kept scrolling.

Next came a summary of my argument about why Henry was denied due process of law by having a lawyer with an inescapable conflict of interest.  Next came a summary of the prosecution’s response to my argument.  At this point, I had scrolled to page nine – one page to go.  When page ten appeared, I leaned in and started reading intently.  I tried to read it out loud, but couldn’t get through it.  Tears streamed down my face and my voice deserted me.

Here is what it said:

“We find that, in this case, the appellant was not accorded a fair hearing and we so hold.  The trial and conviction of the appellant contravened Articles 28 and 44 of the Constitution and was therefore a nullity.

On that account, we hereby quash the conviction and set aside the sentence imposed on the appellant, by the Children’s Court, Masindi, the fact that he has already served the same notwithstanding.  For the same reason, also rule out an order of re-trial of the appellant.”

That was it.  It was over.  The conviction was reversed and the case was dismissed.  We had won.  Henry now has a clean slate.

After I composed myself a bit, I called Henry on Skype at his home in Ishaka where he is studying for his final exams at the end of his second semester of medical school.  I cut to the chase pretty quickly, and he smiled bigger than Dallas and said, “Praise be to God! . . . This is an answer to our prayers.”

Showing Henry the Ruling

Showing Henry the Ruling

We talked for a few more minutes, and then we hung up so he could call his mother to tell her the good news.  Craig asked me a few follow-up questions so we could place this moment in the larger context of this story.  Fortuitously, I was sitting in the shadow of the door that used to keep the prisoners in at Ihungu – Bob Goff had torn it from its hinges a few years back and brought it to me as a gift and reminder that there were still prisoners in need of assistance.

I am still a bit wobbly from the emotion of it all, but I’m not sure I have felt this content in quite some time.  Thanks for your prayers and interest all along the way.

Divine Collision

There are no coincidences.  That’s the theme running through one of my favorite movies of all time, and the reason the M. Night Shyamalan/Mel Gibson film “Signs” is so high on my list.  I, too, look for God’s hand in events that others may chalk up to chance.  When unexpected events converge in my life, I see a divine collision.

When the Yates and Yates law firm/literary agency agreed to take me on as a client about six months ago, they made clear that the working title of my book, “Throwing Starfish,” wouldn’t  make the cut.  While I had grown fond of the title because of what it represented, I trusted their judgment more than my feelings.  So when we were finalizing the book proposal – the document sent to potential publishers from which they make book contract decisions – we had to come up with something new.

Over the course of a few weeks, we batted around numerous ideas and concepts.  We were looking for something that captured the combination of my story and Henry’s, that recognized God’s hand in the story told in the book, and (importantly) was unique in order to avoid confusion and any copyright issues.  Nothing seemed perfect, but since there absolutely had to be a title, and since they assured me the publisher would later play a significant role in selecting a final title, we settled on something that none of us believed would ultimately stick: “Wrongfully Accused.”  I didn’t like it because it reflected only a piece of Henry’s story, and didn’t reflect much of mine.  It also sounded like a book everyone has already read – innocent person charged with a crime he didn’t commit and struggles to get free.  That narrative is certainly part of my book, but is really only a backdrop of a much larger story.

Over the course of about two months, my agents had numerous conversations with a wide variety of publishers about the book.  Quick aside – for amateur writers to get serious consideration from established publishers without an agent is a steep climb, one I am confident I would not have been able to make.  As the time for making a decision among publishers approached, my agents provided me a status report and some guidance.  They told me that we wanted to go with a publisher who was passionate about telling the story, rather than simply comparing the terms of the offers and choosing what facially appears to be the “best” offer.  Among the important terms are (i) the advance against royalties, (ii) the percentage of the book price paid to the author, (iii) the publication date, (iv) the marketing budget allocated by the publisher to promoting the book, and (v) the number of complimentary copies the author receives.

Most consider the advance against royalties to be the most important number because it represents the minimum payment the author will receive for the book.  Here is how it works: the advance is paid to the author in three installments – 1/3 upon signing the contract, 1/3 upon final delivery of the manuscript by the author to the publisher, and 1/3 upon publication of the book.  The author will get no additional money from the publisher until the publisher recoups the advance through sales.  For example, a typical contract will involve the author getting paid 12% of the retail price of each book sold.  So if the retail price is $20, then the author gets $2.40 for each book sold.  If the advance against royalties is $24,000, then the publisher recoups the advance once sales reach 10,000 copies.  From sale 10,001 forward, the author receives $2.40 per book sold.  But, if sales never reach 10,000, the author still keeps the full $24,000.  Accordingly, the higher the advance, the higher the guaranteed payment the author receives.  But equally important, the advance becomes almost entirely irrelevant (save for the time value of money) if the author sells more books than necessary to recoup – the total royalties end up being the same.

This is why my agents strongly counseled me to go with a publisher who is passionate about telling the story – “total book sales” is ultimately a much more important number than the size of the advance.  And “total book sales” is highly dependent upon the efforts of the publisher – the more passionate the publishing team is about the book, the more books will be sold.

As chance (or something else) would have it, Jeana Ledbetter, an editor at Nashville-based Worthy Publishing, reviewed the book proposal on Worthy’s behalf.  She had previously worked with Yates and Yates at their agency in Southern California.  Fortunately, she was quite moved by it and took it to her publication board with a recommendation that they make an offer.  She later told me that she got emotional during her presentation and had a hard time making it through.

Once again, one might be tempted to chalk up to coincidence the fact that Worthy’s President, Byron Williamson, recognized my name from the several years his son and daughter-in-law had spent at Pepperdine.  Ryan and Sarah Williamson had become dear friends of ours in the late 1990s/early 2000s, and have since moved back to Nashville.  Shortly after the editorial meeting, Worthy made an offer.

A couple weeks later, when I met with my agents to discuss next steps, they suggested that we start by scheduling a phone call with Jeana at Worthy and then move forward from there.  But rather than talking via phone, Jeana asked if she could fly out to Los Angeles to meet in person instead.  That was, of course, a good sign.  Over lunch, Jeana exuded passion and commitment to the book project.  Curtis and Karen Yates peppered her with questions, and Jeana gave all the right answers.  By the end of the lunch, we had decided we were done with the selection process before it really even started.  A couple days later, we had reached a deal on all of the relevant terms.  I am not at liberty to discuss most of them, but I can say that we settled on a publication date of February, 2016, which will coincide with Henry’s three-week break from medical school so he can be out here in the United States for some launch events.

I don’t think it was coincidental that when the contract terms were finalized, I was in Angola State Prison with a delegation of Ugandans.  The staff at Angola was kind enough to print out a copy for me to sign, scan, and then send back.

Contract Signing at Angola

Because I wanted to do something symbolic in the prison to commemorate the signing of the contract at Angola, I decided to get a tattoo that reflected the miles of razor wire all around me.  The prison tattoo shop was quite accommodating, though they almost ran out of ink due to the girth of my bicep.

Commemorative Tattoo

Commemorative Tattoo I got at Angola State Prison

I should probably confess to making this part up before my mom has a heart attack.  This is the tattoo I actually got (at least as far as you know):


Over the next few weeks, we continued to bat around book titles.  For a while, we were on Graceful Collision, then we moved to Beautiful Collision, before ultimately settling on Divine Collision.  I am pretty sure that will be the final title.  Like most books, there will also be a subtitle – something like An African Boy, an American Lawyer, and their [adjective] Battle for Freedom.

I am honored that Bob Goff (author of NYT Best-Selling Love Does) will be writing the Forward.  We are now in the process of finalizing all of the details (cover, endorsements, etc.).  I don’t yet know when it will pop up on Amazon for pre-ordering, but I suspect that will be in November or December.  For now, the only way to pre-order the book is to contribute toward the completion of the documentary we are filming about Pepperdine’s work in Ugandan prisons.  Any donation toward the filming completion next month of at least $25 gets a free copy of the book.  A film teaser and several other clips are available at the crowd-funding site.

In other news, Henry continues to excel in medical school, though the family dispute regarding land ownership and occupancy of his family’s home has heated up and is potentially turning south.  I have hired a lawyer in an effort to prevent Henry’s mom and siblings from being forcefully removed from the land they rightfully occupy.  Prayers are welcomed for this situation to stay calm until I get back to Uganda – I am leaving one week from today for trip number 17.

Stomping Grounds

Last Friday morning, we bade farewell to the five Ugandan prison officials, none of whom had ever visited the United States before.  They were effusive with gratitude and determined to incorporate as much of what they had learned as possible.  The other five Ugandans and I (Luke returned home late Thursday night) began the day at the Louisiana State Court.  We had the opportunity to watch preliminary hearings, bail hearings, sentencing hears, and what is called “drug court.”

The New Orleans courthouse is the first in the country to be equipped with a drug testing lab inside the building.  Drug offenders in a certain category are given the opportunity to avoid prison if they can demonstrate they are able to stay clean.  This entails appearing in court regularly before the drug court judge, who gives them a much-needed dose of tough love.  The test results are delivered within minutes of the samples being given.

I understand and think I appreciate the arguments made in favor of legalization of at least some drugs.  But my opposition to such legalization strengthened significantly as I witnessed first-hand the devastation visited on the lives of those addicted to these substances.  And yes, that includes marijuana.  It is OK to disagree, but go spend an hour at the courthouse where you will see that the vast majority (95% in some jurisdictions) of crime (violent and non-violent) in our cities traces back to drugs, then we’ll talk.  (Sorry, enough preaching).

We had a chance to observe plea bargaining in action in the sentencing court, which will be a focus of the Los Angeles leg of the Ugandan delegation’s visit in the coming days.  Uganda is currently in the process of integrating plea bargaining into their criminal justice system in an attempt to address the staggering case backlog and prison overcrowding.

After a quick lunch, we were treated to tour of my old stomping grounds – the John Minor Wisdom Courthouse, which serves as the headquarters for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Fifth Circuit encompasses Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, which is why I visited this courthouse often during my 1994-95 clerkship with one of my heroes, Judge Edith Hollan Jones, whose chambers are in Houston.  After a simple phone call, she arranged the whole afternoon briefing remotely.

During the tour, we visited the extravagantly decorated and breathtakingly spacious court rooms where the appeals are argued.  Serendipitously, Judge Jones is hearing cases next week, and her name plate was already in place.  This made for a memorable photo opportunity, as I had a chance to sit in the chair of someone I greatly admire.


In the en banc courtroom

In the en banc courtroom


In addition to the tour of this historic building (now 100 years old), we had a delightful meeting with Judge Steve Higginson and his four law clerks.  Judge Higginson walked through the anatomy of an appellate case from start to finish and answered numerous questions from our guests about case management at the appellate level.  The Fifth Circuit is on the leading edge of technology and provided our visitors with a vision of what the future will eventually hold for their appellate justice system.

The court clerk thereafter provided us with an extensive case management briefing and gave them each flash drives with all of the important information covered.

From the Fifth Circuit, we journeyed to the airport and boarded a plane bound for Los Angeles, where the case management study tour will resume after a weekend of rest and sightseeing.

No More Victims, and No One Dies Alone

Wednesday, our second day at Louisiana’s Angola State Prison, started off with breakfast with the larger-than-life Burl Cain – Angola’s charismatic and transformative warden.  Thereafter, we visited the prison’s vocational training centers that are set up to help the prisoners acquire a skill while incarcerated.  These include auto mechanics, auto collision repair, small engine repair (lawnmowers, engines, power tools, etc.), horticulture, eye glass manufacturing, and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning).  The instructors are lifers with no possibility of parole.  Their students, however, include many serving shorter sentences who have been relocated to Angola so they can be trained by the lifers, most of whom have graduated from the theological seminary.  The training is so comprehensive and effective that there are more certified auto mechanics trained at Angola each year (98% passage rate) than anywhere else in Louisiana.

These lifer/teachers derive tremendous satisfaction knowing that despite their exceptionally poor choices that earned them life in prison, they have the opportunity to shape and equip others to enable them to avoid making the same bad choices after they get out.  The motto for the moral rehabilitation program is “No More Victims.”

I had to get out my hanky more than once as the head teacher in the small engine shop (who is also a Baptist minister leading his own congregation inside Angola) explained that while they cannot change their past, they do control their future.  “We help shape the men here into the kinds of fathers, brothers, sons, and husbands that we should have been.  Nothing gives us more joy than when we hear back from former students who are now living productive lives on the outside.”

In the HVAC class, the students had all kinds of questions for our Ugandan guests about life in Uganda, both inside and outside prison.  We also had a chance to visit the school where students are catching up on the basic education many of them missed out on before they were convicted.  We also stopped at the hospice care facility in the hospital/dentistry area.  Because “life means life” in Louisiana, there is a steady flow of inmates dying in prison.  The vast majority of care takers are fellow prisoners.  As the end approaches, six prisoner volunteers attach themselves to each dying inmate and serve round-the-clock, four-hour shifts, taking turns sitting, reading, and praying with the patient until he passes – “No one dies alone.”

A few days later, the inmates, guards, family, and friends are treated to a dignified service run by the inmate pastors.  The patient is buried in a beautiful, prisoner-made coffin that is brought to the outdoor funeral grounds in an ornate horse-drawn carriage.


Funeral Carriage

Funeral Carriage

And these aren’t just any horses.  The prison has more than a dozen war horses (Percherons) – the biggest I have ever seen.  They are groomed and maintained by several highly trained inmates for this very purpose.

Funeral Horses (and this prisoner was 6'8" -- at least as far as you know)

Funeral Horses (and this prisoner was 6’8″ — at least as far as you know)

The inmate carriage driver wears a tuxedo.

I can imagine right about now how one might question why so much effort and resources go toward giving the worst of the worst offenders many opportunities that those outside don’t have.  I will confess to coming into Angola with these questions.  I left Angola with none of them.

I am not a softy on crime, by any stretch, but if we truly believe in redemption (and I certainly do), then simply giving up on someone can’t be the right answer.  Moreover, the results achieved by Warden Cain and his innovative and dedicated staff simply can’t be refuted.  Incidentally, Angola receives a constant flow of prison officials from around the country (and around the world, including us Ugandans) who are starting to adopt some of the practices in other prisons.

The other important response to the resource question is that the prison raises vast amounts of money to pay for many of its programs through its semi-annual rodeo events.  Every Sunday in October and one weekend in April, the prison puts on a rodeo.  All participants are prisoners and the 6,000-seat arena is sold out every day.

Angola Rodeo Arena

Angola Rodeo Arena

Outside the arena in the carnival area, the prisoners are allowed to sell the arts and crafts they make year-round, using their own money for the supplies.  The proceeds of the rodeo allow much of what is innovative about Angola to be paid for by non-taxpayer dollars.  Accordingly, the Angola budget is not proportionately larger than other similar prisons.

Before we left Angola, we visited the rodeo and carnival grounds, and even did a little bareback horse riding ourselves.  I was able to stay on my mount for almost fifteen seconds.

Our own private Rodeo

Our own private Rodeo

Because Wednesday was employee-appreciation day, and because crawfish are now in season (who knew there was a crawfish season?), we were invited to sample Louisiana’s fifth food group at the Crawfish Boil.  I have never seen so many crawfish, and I have never seen human beings eat so many of them.

Louisiana's Fifth Food Group

Louisiana’s Fifth Food Group

Most of our Ugandan friends developed a case of the heebee geebies at the thought of eating such ugly and unfamiliar creatures.  This, from folks who devour fried grasshoppers like they are McDonald’s fries.  Go figure.


I felt bad that my research assistant Luke (Pepperdine ambassador and host extraordinaire) had to miss out on the second half of the day, but he had important retrieval work to do.  The night before, he and I had trekked forty minutes to the Baton Rouge airport to pick up another rental car so I could stay with the group at Angola on Wednesday while Luke drove the three hours back to New Orleans to pick up the three whose visas had been tardily issued back in Uganda.  But when the flight landed, there were only two.  The third had been turned away at the ticket counter at the Entebbe Airport before takeoff due to a ticketing snafu.  After some frantic searching and tracking, Luke was able to ascertain the lost sheep would be landing at just before midnight on a different airline.  She was quite relieved to find someone there waiting for her.

The next morning, I checked out of the wonderful and charming Bed and Breakfast where I and two of my Ugandan colleagues had stayed in neighboring St. Francisville.  The owners of The Barrow House Inn, Shirley and Chris, took such good care of us.  And the night before I left, I was humbled to learn that after reading online about the connection between Pepperdine and the Uganda justice system, they were moved to contribute a portion of what we spent on lodging toward the completion of the documentary.  Incidentally, there are new clips of the film-in-progress up on the crowdfunding site.

Later Thursday morning, our group of seven (I retrieved the other five from Angola) met up with Luke’s group of three at Louisiana’s main women’s prison, which houses 900, 140 of which are lifers.  I had no pre-conceived notions about what it would be like at a women’s prison because I don’t watch the wildly popular Netflix show “Orange is the New Black” – at least as far as you know.  Being at Angola and at the women’s prison raised up an impulse in me to buy stock in razor wire manufacturers.

Razor wire as far as the eye could see

Razor wire as far as the eye could see

While they certainly do good and important work there, we had been spoiled by what we had seen at Angola.  The warden of the women’s prison in our group left with many ideas about how to better manage her population of approximately 100 female inmates, though she lamented the relative lack of resources she had at her disposal.

In the afternoon, we met with the Governor-appointed Secretary of Corrections for the State of Louisiana, thanks to Judge Bob Downing’s good efforts.

Meeting at the Department of Corrections Headquarters

Meeting at the Department of Corrections Headquarters

This meeting was quite informative and interesting – who knew Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any jurisdiction in the world?  Not I.  Incidentally, Louisiana laments, rather than celebrates, this statistic.

Before turning in on Thursday evening, we returned for nearly two hours of Wal-Mart shopping.  It was supposed to be one hour, but the oft-repeated Ugandan saying rings true – “In America, you have all the watches.  In Uganda, we have all the time.”

My next post will describe a highly informative day at Louisiana State Court and at the Federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.