Brian Serr

One Day Freedom – Brian Serr

“One Day Freedom” – this is the simple phrase that UPZambia employs to convey a sense of hope to their teenaged clients. Inevitable delays in the Zambian justice system – due in large part to insufficient funding of an insufficient number of courts staffed by an insufficient number of legally trained judges – make it difficult to predict with any degree of precision when detained children will once again enjoy freedom. But “one day” it will happen. You will get your life back “one day.” One Day Freedom.

Evans Mfula is a 16-year-old boy who was one of UPZambia’s clients. While detained in an adult prison for nearly a year “on remand” (awaiting trial), for a crime he did not commit, Evans held on to this hope: “One Day Freedom.” We know this from the paper plate that Evans painted one Saturday when visited by UPZambia volunteers who brought art supplies along to the prison for the kids. Evans’ paper plate (below) may not look like something a 16-year-old would paint. But if you imagine children whose academic development and emotional maturity are delayed by grinding poverty and inadequate educational opportunities, it can explain how a 16-year-old’s art project looks more like what might be expected, in America, from a first grader. And yet, the message painted on Evans’ paper plate reveals a mature understanding of his situation: “One Day Freedom … Come Better Life … After Suf(f)er”

Evans and his friend, the appropriately named Innocent, were arrested for murder, based on nothing that could reasonably be viewed as “evidence.” They became suspects only because they were found in the presence of the two primary suspects the day after the murder. Those two suspects quickly confessed to the murder, they both gave a statement that only the two of them were involved, which corroborated Evans’ and Innocents’ story that they knew nothing about the killing, didn’t know their friends had killed anyone, and certainly didn’t participate.

As a professor of criminal law, I have read thousands of criminal cases. Yet, as I read Evans’ case file last week at the UPZambia office, just after viewing his paper plate on the wall, there was one thing after another that put me in a sort of legal culture shock. The story begins with a woman worrying out loud that she didn’t have money for baby formula for her young child. Two friends of hers decide later that they could get some money for baby formula from a cab driver. The cab driver resisted, things escalated, and one held the driver while the other pulled a knife and stabbed him. As the two had never done anything like this before, they suffered immense guilt. The following day they arranged a meeting in Lusaka with a witch doctor so that they could be “cleansed” of their crime. So that the witch doctor could acquire the correct charms for the cleansing, the two provided some details of their crime. The witch doctor reported the conversation to the police and the police were waiting to arrest when they showed up at the witch doctor’s home. Before leaving their village for Lusaka, and without telling Evans and Innocent about why they were driving to Lusaka, they asked Evans and innocent if they wanted to ride along.

As strange as the entire case seems, for me it was just as strange that police would arrest someone merely for being with the suspects a day after the crime. Such “guilt” by mere association does not come close to the “probable cause” that police officers need to legally arrest someone in America, or, for that matter, under the law in Zambia. Moreover, the police investigation quickly yielded confessions by the actual perpetrators, who implicated each other and had no reason not to implicate Evans and Innocent had they been involved in the crime in any way. Meanwhile both Evans and Innocent maintained their innocence, and neither said anything even remotely close to incriminating in their respective statements to the police. Despite the utter lack of evidence, they were nevertheless formally charged with murder and detained pending trial due to the severity of the charge. Due to the lack of juvenile detention facilities, they were detained in an adult prison, in conditions where they barely had room to roll over at night.

One Day Freedom – that day came just a few weeks ago, as a direct result of UPZambia’s legal assistance. That happy ending has come with some challenges. After a year in substandard conditions, Evans and Innocent have had some difficulties adjusting to their freedom. They are not eating well, and they show some other signs of trauma. With a new sibling, Evans even came home to a different family than the one he remembered. Despite those challenges, he has largely realized the hopes he painted on his paper plate many months ago in prison: “One Day Freedom… Come Better Life … After Suffer.”