Metuh collapses in court, judge continues with trial
• Rejects defense counsel’s application to withdraw from case
Former National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Chief Olisa Metuh, yesterday collapsed in court during his trial at the Federal High Court in Abuja but the trial judge, Okon Abang continued with proceedings.
When the matter was called, Metuh had stood up from his wheel chair and made for the dock box when he probably slipped his feet and fell uncontrollably on the floor.It took the intervention of his relatives to lift him on the stretcher at the adjournment of the court. He had remained flat on the floor throughout the duration of the trial.
Consequently, a doctor was invited who later told Justice Abang that Metuh needed to be taken to the hospital for further examination due to the fall.The court only rose for about 30 minutes after the fall before the judge returned and continued with the proceedings.But the judge was visibly angry and wondered why a medical doctor who was not in the courtroom when Metuh slipped and fell should request that he be taken to the hospital.
Metuh’s counsel, Emeka Etiaba (SAN), as a result prayed the court for an adjournment, which was not opposed by the prosecution counsel, Sylvanus Tahir. “In view of the application of the medical doctor in the employment of Federal High Court, that was not in court at the commencement of proceeding and with no objection, and since it is a medical doctor’s opinion, this matter is adjourned till May 22,” Justice Abang held.
Before the adjournment however, the judge was furious over Tahir’s inability to oppose the application for an adjournment.The judge also wondered why the prosecution, after seeing what happened in court, and how a medical doctor who was not in court had requested that Metuh be taken to hospital, had declined to oppose the plea for adjournment.
Metuh had returned to court yesterday in spite of his ill health as the court had on April 19, barred him from travelling abroad for medical treatment. The court also barred him from further presenting any medical report before it.
When the judge resumed sitting, he summoned the court Registrar, Doyin Olawole and the two clerks, Omoju James and Dorcas Danjuma, to address the court on what transpired. After narrating what transpired in court, the court requested the defence counsel, Etiaba to call his 11th witness.
But Etiaba submitted that he could not continue when his client was lying critically ill on a stretcher. “The first defendant had a terrible fall while trying to mount the dock, and I don’t even know if he is alive or not on that stretcher.“Since the court had insisted on proceeding with trial, I announce my withdrawal from the trial”, Etiaba stated.
Effort by Etiaba to adduce reason for his withdrawal was rebuffed as Justice Abang refused to record him. Rather, in a bench ruling, Justice Abang refused Etiaba’s withdrawal, saying it was a ploy to delay trial.The court was later adjourned till today for continuation of trial.
In his reaction after the adjournment, the prosecution, Sylvanus Tahir, stated that the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (2015) provides that a defendant “can always stand trial while he is before the court.”“Now, if the medical personnel had said or had given an opinion to the court that the defendant needed to be evacuated to the hospital, and I was asked to comment, naturally what would I say? Going by the law, I have to say I will not oppose,” he stated.
A human rights activist, Chief Malcolm Omirhobo said it is wrong for the judge to go on with the trial. ”The reason is because the court has the facts of the case, which includes the demeanour of the accused person. It is not enough to say proceedings should go on when the man collapsed because he needs to be fit to stand trial. What the judge ought to have done to be able to have the justification or the backing of the law is to order an independent medical evaluation of the accused person. Without carrying out an independent medical evaluation of the suspect, the court descended into the arena and it is wrong,” he said.
Also, director, Access to Justice, Joseph Otteh, said Justice Abang has to balance a number of competing interests, which includes the interest of the accused to face trial and the interest of the parties to the suit, including that of the public. His words: “Sometimes, it is not easy to navigate all those competing interests because persons facing corruption trial always have the intention to delay trials, hoping that some how, the tide might change along the line. But it does appear Metuh volunteered to go into the box, which means that he had manifested intention to face trial before the collapse.
“Therefore, I think that the court ought to have evaluated the circumstances and reach the conclusion that the man was not fit enough to continue with the trial. The court should have decided to get an independent medical assessment of Metuh’s health status.”A retired judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Okechukwu Okeke stated that Metuh is supposed to stand trial and not sit or lie down for trial, adding that the court, by that action is doing a hatchet man’s job.
“The judge does not listen to any advice. The man said he is sick and the judge said no, yet he has to be alive to stand trial. How will he enter the witness box? He refused to allow him to go overseas for medical attention. Unless the laws have changed from the one we adjudicated on, it is unheard of,” he said.Reacting to the issue, a constitutional lawyer, Festus Ogwuche, stated that the issue of adjournment over ill health is not only specified and guaranteed by the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, but also the Constitution and other human right charters.
According to him, an accused person in a criminal case must be present in court, “as his hair must not be shaved in his absence.”“The accused must hear the accusations against him. So, in the circumstance that Chief Olisah Metuh slumped, he cannot have soundness of mind. Why should the judge have to continue proceedings when the accused ability to participate in the proceedings has been affected? Ogwuche asked.’’He added that in the circumstance that Metuh fell in the court, there should be an adjournment.
“The duty of the judge was to adjourn to a more convenient date with or without an application. If the accused fell in court, he could be unconscious. In this circumstance, I smell a rat. It is like the judge is playing to the gallery to please some people, but he should be above board and be as objective as possible”, he added.