Jackie Atoo Barbra, 35, was arrested and charged with murder in 2002.
After one year and ten months of trial, the mother of five, all boys, was sentenced to death when she pleaded guilty. She was then transferred from Gulu prison to Luzira where she was destined to face her fate.
10 years into the sentence, Jackie’s life was not left the same when a group of lawyers and legislatures came out to address death penalties against capital offenders in Uganda.
The group said death penalties are inconsistent with the constitution since they restrain the court in evaluating the circumstances of the offence in order to mitigate the sentence and arrive at an appropriate punishment. They also contended that mandatory death sentence impinges on human dignity and goes against the most fundamental core of right to life on which other human rights are based.
“I was 7.5 months pregnant when I went behind bars. High court justices who examined my case concluded that it was murder, a case that could not be changed. By that time, the only sentence for one guilty of murder was death. As I stayed in prison, things kept on changing. There was a group of lawyers who came in courts challenging death penalties in Uganda,” explains Jackie.
Even though the lawyers were unable to successfully do away with death penalty, their efforts prompted judges to agree that not every murder case deserves a death sentence.
Jackie and other inmates were given a chance to return back to court for a mitigation plea opportunity. It is at this point that the judge decided to exempt Jackie from death sentence.
“He did not change my charges from that of murder but when he examined the case he said I should serve 12 years. When I came back to prison there after, they calculated and concluded that I was remaining with 9 months to complete 12 years from the time the initial sentence was passed. I served my time and came out.” narrates Jackie.
Who did Jackie murder?
“The issue that led me to jail happened between me and my husband. We had a fight in which a stone I aimed at him accidentally hit our 5 year-old to death. As a result, my sister was also arrested as an accomplice to the tragedy.”
Jackie’s sister was released after one year. Left alone, Jackie never imagined getting out of prison – “I knew I was going to die,” she says.
Jackie never saw her kids from arrest in 2002 till 2004.
“They were scattered, living their own lives. They became an object of mockery on the village. They were labeled; child of a murderer. Many times while in prison I tried to coordinate at least to link up with them but my husband’s relatives could not let me.”
“How about the one you killed? Wasn’t he also a child?” Such were the questions slapped in the face of Jackie’s welfare officer who sought means of re-uniting her with the Children.
“I really wanted to know whether they were there and how they were doing – sometimes I thought they were killed. In my culture, out of anger, relatives of a person who has been killed can take revenge by also killing someone from the murderer’s family. I din’t have the slightest clue of where they were till I consulted through one askari who told me they were alive – although scattered.”
“My sister went and tried to tress where my children were . She found that the cloth my boy was putting on was the very one he wore the day I was arrested. In fact it had turned into tatters. My sister found out that our house and property had been burnt when police took me in.”
“I wrote to them letters and those who were willing forgave me. But the rest I do not know.The children came to learn what happened. They forgave me because they know I didn’t intend to,” Jackie explains.
“It was like I dream. I though I was to wake up and its not true. This final judgement tortured me for a whole week. I was scared of sleeping. I could hardly converse it with people. I could not reason straight – As time went on, I soon realized it was actually true, my death sentence was no more. The feeling that I had is in-explainable – finally I would be re-united with my children, walk out of prison – because what I knew was I would never walk out of prison- I never thought things would one day change,” she warmly narrates.
Finding Christ behind bars
“When I was taken in jail, I did not know much about God. I had grown up from a catholic family. I could hardly remember what was preached on leaving church. It was a routine, but I was not in a relationship with Christ. My sister quickly joined the people that used to gather for church while in jail but personally, I didn’t want to know. All I thought about was a way of escaping. Every time she could come to me; Jackie lets go to church. I did not want and we quarreled a lot about it.”
“It was not until I completed my remand, when high court sentenced me to death – released my sister, that my eyes opened to Christ. When we were inside she gave me company, strengthening and advice – but when I was left alone, that is when I realized that I needed something more than the people I talk to. Whenever fellow inmates gathered for prayers, I started going too every meeting. Slowly, I started drawing closer to God.”
“And many times God spoke to me through messages shared and I got peace in my heart. I grew in faith and grew stronger in God until I became one of the servants in church – I just surrendered – knowing that even if I do not get out of prison, I was in covenant with God (This was about 2008 – 3rd year of death sentence).”
Word of encouragement
“In each and every situation that one goes through, people should know God. When you have God in your heart, you can face any difficulty in life however much it looks like you do not know where you are going. Have faith and trust in God. He makes a way where there is no way. I reconciled with many of the people in the village but it is not safe to go there – You do not know who actually forgave you and who did not,” Jackie concludes.