How court jailed man for 50 years over fatal acid attack

Soroti High Court Judge Henry Peter Adonyo. He on February 21 sentenced Andrew Francis Obirai to 50 years in jail for killing his ex-lover. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Andrew Francis Obirai  was first charged with murder and convicted for killing Dorothy Atim. His conviction and 35-year-sentence by Judge David Batema was, however, overturned by the appeals court, which ordered a retrial. 

A gut-wrenching scream pierced the silence of the night, jolting Florence Elaborot awake on September 8, 2013. It was around 3am. Writhing in unimaginable pain, outside, was her daughter, Dorothy Atim, who consistently screamed in the Ateso language, “Toto, toto, aiar eong Obirai! Toto , toto, aiar eong Obirai!” It translates in English to: “Mummy, mummy, Obirai has killed me! Mummy, mummy, Obirai has killed me!”

Disoriented and still half asleep, Ms Elaborot stumbled out of bed and hurried to respond to her daughter’s cry. To her shock and horror, she found Atim lying on the verandah, soaked in some liquid.
Ms Elaborot, her heart heavy with grief and anger, stood witness to the harrowing scene, her skin bearing the scars of the acid that had splashed upon her in the frantic effort to help her daughter. Desperate to ease Dorothy’s suffering, she and her son, Isaac Joab Ochodoi, alongside concerned neighbours, desperately attempted to wash away the burning liquid with water, but their efforts were futile.

The record above forms part of the court decision in which Andrew Francis Obirai was on February 21 convicted of Atim’s murder and sentenced to 50 years in jail by High Court Judge Henry Peter Adonyo.
“This verdict,” says Jacquelyn Okui, the spokesperson of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP), “stands as a solemn reminder of the consequences of such reprehensible acts and serves as a testament to the pursuit of justice in our legal system.”

The trial
Obirai was first charged with murder and convicted for killing Atim, who worked for the Vision Group in Soroti District. His conviction and 35-year-sentence by Judge David Batema was, however, overturned by the appeals court, which ordered a retrial. During the first trial at the High Court in Soroti, Obirai successfully argued before the appellate court, that assessors were not permitted to take oath. In a unanimous ruling on February 7, 2023, Justices Hellen Obura, Catherine Bamugemereire, and Christopher Madrama ordered a retrial. A team from the ODPP led by Assistant Director of Public Prosecution Alex Bagada, made the state case, while Obirai opted to self-represent despite being offered public defenders. 

The court cured the reason for the retrial when two assessors— Pampas Ekayu and Lawrence Erwaku—took oath after Obirai did not object to them. Obirai denied the charges of murder in the unlawful killing of Atim. 
During the trial, the prosecution team was tasked with proving the unlawful killing of Atim and that Obirai had indeed committed the alleged murder beyond a reasonable doubt to secure a conviction. To pin Obirai for the murder, the prosecution produced nine witnesses. They included Ms Elaborot, who relayed a statement made by her daughter while receiving treatment at Mulago hospital, a medical doctor, and police officers.

On September 7, 2023, when the prosecution closed its case, Judge Adonyo found that a case had been made against Obirai. He was informed of how he could adduce his evidence, and he opted to give his evidence under oath. He also called four witnesses and presented three statements to back his case.
Ms Elaborot confirmed that she was the mother of Atim and that indeed her daughter died on February 28, 2014. She also confirmed to the court that she attended the burial of Atim. Her testimony was corroborated by Atim’s brother, Joab Isaac Ochodoi. 

Dr William Male Mutumba presented a post-mortem report, which also confirmed Atim’s death. Obirai did not contest the evidence. In the absence of contrary evidence, Judge Adonyo confirmed Atim’s death and ruled that the ingredient of the murder offence had been proved by the prosecution. 

The court then had to resolve that Atim’s death was unlawful. Dr Mutumba, a medical doctor and pathologist of more than 17 years, who carried out the post-mortem on Atim, told the court that he examined the body of Atim on March 1, 2014. In his report, Dr Mutumba indicates that the entire dead body, which he examined, was completely wrapped in gauze and crepe bandages, and upon his removing of the same, he found third-degree burns on the head, upper limbs, chest, abdomen, and lower limbs, which were deep with noticeable pattern exhibiting signs of chemicals like acids, alkalines, and detergents that could have been splashed on the body of the deceased. 

Dr Mutumba further told the court that upon examining Atim’s face, he also noticed that there was a recently grafted skin which appeared to have been removed from some place elsewhere and had been embedded on the face where there were burns. 
He reiterated that the cause of death was consistent with chemical burns. 
Musa Kasoni Wakabi, a principal government analyst, who examined exhibits that the police picked from the scene of Atim’s attack, told the court that he carried tests on the liquids found on test items and concluded that they contained a highly corrosive and dehydrating acid called sulphuric acid. This, he added, can cause permanent injury and even death. 
Obirai did not dispute Wakabi’s report, but he asked that the items examined be brought to the court. 

Evidence adduced
In finding in favour of the prosecution on whether Atim’s death was unlawful, Judge Adonyo relied on the fact that Obirai did not bring any evidence to show that the acid attack on Atim was accidental or was permitted by law. 

The court relied on the testimony of two witnesses, who were the first responders to an alarm made by Atim on the fateful night. The duo informed the court that they found Atim writhing in horrifying pain. 
The unusual liquid that had been splashed on her front and back evidently had a burning effect. 
The two and the others tried to cool down the burning effect that Atim was experiencing by pouring water on her to no avail. Seeing that the condition was not resolving itself, they sought medical care. 

Ms Elaborot was also burnt by the acid, which splashed from Atim’s hair onto her. She showed the court the scars resulting from the incident. Atim was rushed to and admitted to Soroti Regional Referral Hospital. 
Ms Elaborot, court documents show, was unable to recognise her daughter as the whole of her body, including her face, had become swollen, with one eye and an ear badly affected. Atim was, subsequently, admitted to Mulago National Referral Hospital (Acid burns section) where she spent the next six months of her life in pain. Her mother, Ms Elaborot, told the court that Atim’s skin, while at Mulago, started peeling off and leaving only the meat remaining on the bones. As a result of this peeling of the skin, other healthy parts of the body were cut and attached to those peeling-off parts.

Testimony confirmed
Dr Mutumba confirmed Ms Elaborot’s testimony. 
According to him, when he carried out a post-mortem examination on the body of Atim, he established that she had suffered third-degree burns on the head, upper limbs, chest, abdomen, and lower limbs. The burns he saw were deep with a noticeable pattern exhibiting signs of chemical action arising from dangerous substances such as acid. 

“The fact that dangerous substances were splashed on the late Atim leads to the conclusion that whoever discharged the said liquid onto the deceased did so to make sure the deceased would not be able to survive the attack or would permanently carry body-distorting scars,” Judge Adonyo observed and concluded that the prosecution had proved the element that Obirai acted with malice aforethought. 

Use of logical deduction

The court found that there was no direct evidence to show Obirai’s participation in the murder of Atim. Direct evidence includes such things as an eyewitness in a murder case who saw the actual killing, video showing a suspect in the act, and the defendant’s fingerprints on a weapon, among other things. 

The court turned to circumstantial evidence, which is indirect evidence that requires the application of logical deduction to establish a fact. Obirai denied the accusation that he splashed the corrosive liquid onto Atim. He equally raised an alibi that on the fateful night, he was not at the scene of crime in Soroti but was either in or going towards Kampala.

Although Atim died before testifying, she had recorded a statement while she was admitted to Mulago hospital. The statement was included in evidence by the investigating officer. In the statement, Atim implicates Obirai as her assailant. Ms Elaborot corroborated the statement taken by the investigating officer. Despite the absence of lights at the gate, Judge Adonyo concluded that he was persuaded by the proximity of the gate to the main house, a mere 10 to 15 metres away. He found Atim’s claim of seeing Obirai credible, not only due to the security light illuminating the main house but also considering her long-standing intimate relationship with Obirai. Given the presence of security lights, any possibility of mistaken identity was deemed improbable by Justice Adonyo.

Obirai’s excessive love for Atim bordered on obsession, the judge ruled. Court heard that Obirai, for example, followed Atim from Soroti to Entebbe, renting a room next to hers despite having no other business there. Obirai showed jealousy toward Atim’s male friends and even fought with a rival suitor. Even when she became pregnant in her new relationship, Obirai continued to pursue her, even registering a company with her as a shareholder. Obirai also transferred a car to her and allowed her to mortgage it. While initially seen as part of Atim’s family, Obirai’s obsession grew over time, evident in his inability to accept her relationship with another man. This jealousy and obsession, the judge ruled, ultimately led to tragic consequences.

The judge deemed the evidence of injuries sustained by Obirai from the acid credible. The police report indicated healing scars on his face, thigh, and right arm, along with wounds on his right lower arm. These scars resembled keloids consistent with acid burns, serving as circumstantial evidence linking him to the attack. The judge concluded that it was plausible that Obirai was splashed with acid while pouring it onto his victim at the gate.