The Lagos State High Court in Ikeja on Monday sentenced a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Dr. Joseph Nwobike, to one month’s imprisonment for attempting to pervert the course of justice.
The court convicted Nwobike of 12 counts bordering on the offence, sentenced him to one month’s imprisonment on each of the 12 counts but said the sentences would run concurrently.
Justice Raliat Adebiyi, who pronounced the verdict, said the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission proved beyond reasonable doubts that the SAN was in constant communication with court officials to influence the assignment of his cases to his preferred judges.
The EFCC first arraigned Nwobike on five counts on March 9, 2016 but the charge was amended on two different occasions with the prosecution eventually increasing the counts to 18.
In the charges, the EFCC accused the SAN of offering monetary gratification to judges of the Federal High Court to influence them to give judgments in his favour.
For example, he was accused of giving N750,000 to Justice Mohammed Yunusa, while he had cases pending before the judge.
Nwobike was also accused of having constant communication, through text messages, with the registrar of Justice Musa Kurya, Mrs. Helen Ogunleye, alleging that the SAN, on one occasion, gave an envelope, believed to be containing money, to Ogunleye to give to the judge, and followed up with a message that the registrar should tell “him to discharge the order.”
The EFCC said Nwobike gave Ogunleye the sum of N250,000 on the same day, for her brother who secured an admission to study medicine in a US university.
Nwobike was also accused of having constant communication with a clerk of the Federal High Court, one Mr. Jide, instructing him to ensure that his cases were assigned to specific judges, especially Justice Yunusa.
In her judgment, Justice Adebiyi said though it was established that Nwobike truly gave N750,000 to Justice Yunusa, the anti-graft agency failed to prove the intent behind the money, since Nwobike claimed that it was to assist the judge whose mother had a kidney problem and needed to undergo dialysis.
But the judge said the EFCC was able to prove beyond reasonable doubts that Nwobike attempted to pervert the course of justice by influencing the judges to whom his cases would be assigned.
Though the judge agreed with the defence counsel that cases were only assigned by the administrative judge, she said it was obvious that Jide was influential as seven out of the 11 times that Nwobike asked him to ensure his cases were assigned to Justice Yunusa, the cases ended up in Justice Yunusa’s docket.
Justice Adebiyi noted that all the rulings in a particular case filed by Nwobike before Justice Yunusa went in Nwobike’s favour.
“Could this be a coincidence or excellent cases? The question begs for an answer,” Justice Adebiyi said.
The judge rejected Nwobike’s claim that the text message he sent to Justice Musa Kurya’s registrar, Ogunleye, reading “tell him to discharge the order,” was sent in error.
“The defendant, under cross-examination, said the text was sent in error; this testimony of the defendant is unbelievable and illogical, especially in the light of the response of Mrs. Ogunleye of that day. However, it is not for the court to speculate.
“The evidence against the defendant is damning. The defendant, a senior member of member of the Bar, sent various text messages as streamed in Exhibit P21, to a registrar of the Federal High Court.
“The defendant had also admitted to giving PW5 (Ogunleye) a sum of N250,000 as acknowledged by her and also gave an envelope to PW5 to give to her boss, honourable Justice Kurya, whom he described as ‘him.’ PW5 did not deny that she delivered the envelope but feigned ignorant of the content of same.
“…The behaviour of the defendant, a senior member of the Bar, is also highly unbecoming. From the evidence, the defendant was clearly in the habit of sending money to Mrs. Ogunleye to ensure she was responsive to his requests.”
Pronouncing Nwobike guilty of attempts to pervert the course of justice, the judge held, “The court found that the prosecution was able to prove beyond reasonable doubts that the defendant, by paying the sum of N750,000 into the account of Honourable Justice Yunusa on the 19th of March, 2015, attempted to pervert the course of justice.
“…In conclusion, the defendant, Dr. Joseph Nwobike (SAN), is found not guilty of the offence of offering gratification to public officials, contrary to Section 44(1) of the Criminal Law of Lagos State No. 11, 2011; he is accordingly discharged and acquitted on counts one and two.
“The defendant is also found not guilty of counts four, five and six, attempting to pervert the course of justice contrary to Section 97(3) of the Criminal Law of Lagos State No. 11, 2011 and he is discharged and acquitted on the same counts.
“The defendant is also found not guilty on count 18 – making false information to an officer of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, contrary to Section 49(2) the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (Establishment) Act, 2004 and he is hereby discharged and acquitted on the same count.
“The defendant is found guilty and convicted of attempting to pervert the course of justice contrary to Section 97(3) of the Criminal Law of Lagos State No. 11 of 2011 on counts 3, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17.”
In his allocutus, the defence counsel, Mr. Wale Akoni (SAN), pleaded with Justice Adebiyi to temper justice with mercy, urging the judge to note that Nwobike was a first-time offender and a senior member of the Bar, whose law firm had many lawyers in its employ.
Reacting, the prosecutor, Oyedepo, said the EFCC had no record of any previous crime by Nwobike, but he noted that Section 97(3) under which the SAN was convicted attracted a minimum of two years’ imprisonment.
He urged the judge to impose the prison term “so that it this will serve as a deterrent to young lawyers like myself, the Senior Advocates and other senior members of the Bar.”
But Akoni argued that the kind of sentence to impose was subject to the judge’s discretion.
The judge rose for a while and upon her return said Nwobike’s culpability was high, adding that a custodian sentence rather than a fine what was required to serve as a deterrent to other lawyers.
She sentenced him to 30 days’ imprisonment on each of the 12 counts but said the sentences would run concurrently.