Residents of Kamwokya, a Kampala suburb, will never forget July 30, 2008 when one of their own, a housewife, poisoned her four children and then strangled each one of them to ensure that they were indeed dead. The four children included a pair of twins.
Margaret Kasande, alias Nalongo, made sure that on the fateful day, two of the four children, who were school-going, missed school. The school-going children were Marion Muhooza, 5 and Martina Ainembabazi, 3. Both were pupils at Arena Nursery School in Kamwokya.
The other two children whose young lives ended at their mother’s hands were twins named Medrine Nakato and Merisha Babirye, aged 2.
After she stopped her children from attending school on that fateful day, she went on to close the door of her two-roomed rented house and gave them food laced with poison.
Minutes later, on seeing that they were taking long to die, Kasande grabbed a nylon curtain and started strangling her toddlers one-by-one to ensure that they were no more.
She started by strangling the older one.
In a bid to disguise her actions, she then placed the four bodies on the bed in the front room and covered them neatly with a bed sheet and took poison in a bid to take her own life too.
The father of the strangled children, Mr Gerald Mukwandi, had on that fateful day, left very early for work since his job as a butcher at Kalerwe Market in Kampala demanded so.
Upon return at home that evening, he found the main door to their house locked, which was something unusual. Since he had spare keys, he managed to open and accessed the house.
“When I opened the door, I heard my wife groaning in pain and vomiting. She had a rope tied round her neck,” Mr Mukandi stated in his police statement regarding the incident.
He added: “I saw the children lying in bed. I moved over and touched them but they were cold and already dead.”
He later learnt of how his wife brutally murdered all his four children. His neighbours rushed his wife to Mulago hospital for treatment.
Since she was the prime suspect, police kept watch over her as she received treatment at Mulago hospital until she recovered to face court.
In his police statement, Mukwandi told police of how the day before the incident, they had a heated disagreement about her securing a job.
“She had wanted to start working but I disagreed with her idea because there was nobody to take care of our children at home. I had proposed that we hire a housemaid before she starts working but this did not happen,” he narrates in his police statement.
Mukwandi was so traumatised by the tragedy that he did not return to Uganda after his children’s funeral in his home country Rwanda.
A neighbour, who preferred anonymity, said Kasande murdered her children and took her life following a rumour that had been making rounds in the neighbourhood that her husband had fathered a son with another woman because she had not bore him a son.
The neighbour added that Kasande was irritable and that even before the tragedy, she often took her anger out on her children whom she would beat severely.
Upon full recovery from Mulago hospital, Kasande was charged with four counts of murder and remanded to Luzira prison.
On September 2013, she pleaded guilty to the murder of her four children before trial judge Andrew Bashaija.
Justice Bashaija convicted her basing on her own plea of guilty.
But before he could pronounce a sentence, court was alerted of a doctor’s report.
The doctor’s report had indicated that Kasande was mentally ill and that her condition could have prompted her to murder her four children.
While in the court dock, Kasande, amid sobs, revealed that she could occasionally lose her mind and that she needed to be on medication all the time if she was to remain stable.
She went on to tell court that sometimes she skipped taking her treatment because she could not afford the medicines all the time since they were expensive.
“I killed my children because I had lost my mind. I loved my children and regret the action. I ask the country, my husband and his family to forgive me. I am very sorry,” Kasande pleaded in court.
Her mental illness was backed by a letter dated March 10, 2010, from the then police psychiatrist, Dr Julius Muloni, who stated that Kasande had a mental illness called clinical depression.
“It is likely that the unbecoming behaviour that led her to murdering her daughters could have been triggered by the mental illness,” the psychiatrist’s letter, reads in part.
“Kasande is presently fit to stand trial, though she lacks appropriate emotion to any punishment she may be given before court,” Dr Muloni further stated in his letter to court.
In his judgment, Justice Bashaijja reasoned that the doctor’s report was enough proof that Kasande was mentally ill when she killed her children. He said prosecution had failed to prove that there was malice aforethought by the suspect.
“Court was satisfied that Kasande was insane at the time of commission of the offences. She was incapable of understanding what she was doing or that she ought not to have done it. Kasande was not responsible for her actions,” ruled Justice Bashaijja.
Justice Bashaija also, upon evaluating the findings of Dr Muloni on September 16, 2011, ordered that Kasande be taken to the Butabika National Referral Mental Hospital until she recovered from her mental illness.
The judge further ordered that Kasande’s file be submitted to the Justice minister for further management.
Back in court. Early August, Kasande’s file was among the more than 40 files that were fixed in a criminal session to be handled by Justice Yasin Nyanzi.
When Kasande’s file was called on August 10, Mr Ambrose Tiishekwa, Kasande’s lawyer, filed an application seeking court’s intervention to release her from Luzira prison where she is still on remand on grounds that she had been treated of her mental illness and was fit to be reintegrated into her community.
Mr Tiishekwa argued that his client had been off treatment for two years then and that the doctor’s report showed that she was fit to live in society without any special attention but the minister had not yet invoked his powers to have her released.
He added that since 2015, when his client was declared free of the metal illness, the prison authorities were wondering why she was still being held in jail.
In reply, State prosecutor Harriet Ajok objected to the release of Kasande from Luzira prison on grounds that she had instructions from the Director of Public prosecutions (DPP) to push her sentencing since she pleaded guilty and was convicted accordingly.
“No one forced her to plead guilty. She intended to kill herself and the children. In the last report of Dr Muloni, it was his conclusion that she had recovered and improved,” Ms Ajok told court early this month.
“She has been off medication for two years so she is fit to stand trial. I pray that court proceeds with her trial,” Ms Ajok pleaded with court.
But in a rejoinder, counsel Tiishekwa emphasised that his client’s plea of guilty was quashed by Justice Bashaijja upon the doctor’s findings that she had mental illness.
He also said there were concerns raised by the officer-in-charge of the women’s section at Luzira prison, Ms Stella Nabunya, questioning why Kasande’s request for release from prison had not been acted upon since 2015 when she recovered.
“The above inmate (Kasande) has been in my custody since2011. Until now, she has not received her commitment warrant from the minister,” counsel Tiishekwa quoted Ms Nabunya’s complaints.
Justice Nyanzi upon hearing the arguments from both the defence and government lawyers earlier this month, in his ruling, ordered Butabika hospital to remind the Justice minister to give his say that would in turn, form his decision on whether to release Kasande from prison.
“I direct Butabika hospital superintendent to write and update the minister on the mental status of Kasande to help him make a final decision on her case,” Justice Nyanzi said.
He added: “If the minister does not respond within three months from the date of this ruling, the file should be returned to me for an appropriate order.”
Minister’s powers quashed. As Kasande awaits the feedback from the Justice minister, there is a landmark judgment by another High Court judge, David Batema, who stripped the Justice minister of the powers to release mentally sick prisoners.
Core to the Justice Batema’s landmark judgment delivered in July 2015, he noted that the practice of waiting for the minister’s orders as a pre-condition to release mentally challenged prisoners was giving away the judicial powers to the minister, which powers are vested in the Judiciary by the people of Uganda.
The judge said the Constitution demands that the Judiciary must be independent in executing its work and that having to wait for the minister’s orders interfered with its independence.
“I am of the strong belief that the trial court retains the power to issue special orders for the confinement, discharge, treatment or otherwise deal with the prisoner that is insane or has ceased to be insane. That criminal file remains open, pending the judge’s special orders. It is not done with until all is done with the prisoner,” ruled Justice Batema.
He added: “Any court waiting for the minister’s orders is giving away the independence of the Judiciary and is in one way or another accepting to be ordered around by the minister who, as experience has shown, is too busy to issue the orders. Courts should not allow any law or practice that ousts the jurisdiction of court and hold the courts at ransom in judicial matters. I stand to be corrected.”