Voices from Death Row: Pete Ouko's 18 years on death row in Kenya
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On the day Pete Ouko was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, he thought he was going home. He’d already spent two and half years in Nairobi’s Industrial Area Remand Prison facing a capital trial, but the jury that had tried his case had unanimously found him not guilty. After two more weeks in detention, he was taken back to court for what he’d assumed would be his discharge. “I gave away everything I had to the other prisoners,” he says, “because I thought I was about to be released.”
Instead, as he was entitled to do under Kenyan law, the judge reversed the jury verdict: “That was the heaviest moment. I was told I’d be hanged by the neck until I was dead. But from then on, I was in fight mode. I knew I wasn’t guilty. What kept me going was knowing that I had to get home for my kids.”
I interviewed Ouko, 53, during his recent visit to Oxford, where he gave an electrifying presentation at the launch of ‘Voices from Death Row’, an exhibition of art at Lincoln College by prisoners sentenced to death around the world, including the USA, Indonesia and Kenya. Organised by DPRU doctoral candidates Amelia Inglis and Lucrezia Rizzelli with support from the Death Penalty Project, the event was a huge success, with 130 people at the launch and some 200 further visitors over the following two days.
The Death Penalty Research Unit’s (DPRU) Director, Professor Carolyn Hoyle, Parvais Jabbar, co-executive director of the Death Penalty Project (DPP), and Toshi Kazama, who has spent many years photographing condemned prisoners and the machinery of death in Asia and America, gave well-received talks. But Ouko – a man whose very presence at the event represented an astonishing story of personal resilience against extreme adversity – was the star.
The highlight came when he asked 14 volunteers from the audience to lie on the lecture room floor to re-enact what he went through every night from 1998 to 2002, the first four years of the 18 he spent on death row, when he shared a cell measuring seven feet by eight with 13 other inmates.
Ouko’s demonstration showed that the only way it was physically possible for so many people to sleep in such a confined space was for the prisoners to lie across the cell on their sides. Half of them faced one way and half the other, so that the feet of the men in one row would be pushed against the faces of those in the other. It was impossible to move: each man had to lie on the same side all night, with no mattress, pillow or blanket, and if someone needed to relieve himself, the other prisoners would have to get up to give them space while they used a child’s potty. “It was bad enough if they only wanted a pee,” Ouko told me. “But if they had to do a long call, it would stink out the cell. They would tip the potty’s contents into a bucket that hung from the door, where it stayed for the rest of the night.”
Last year, the DPP published Hoyle and Rizzelli’s study Living With a Death Sentence in Kenya: Prisoners’ Experience of Crime, Punishment and Death Row, based on interviews with 671 prisoners, conducted in conjunction with Kenya’s National Commission on Human Rights. It showed that Kenyans sentenced to death for murder and robbery with violence are overwhelmingly from disadvantaged backgrounds, poorly-educated, and likely to have been deprived of basic due process rights. It also suggested that in Kenya, capital punishment is no deterrent to offending – because most death row prisoners were unaware they might face it when they committed their crimes.
The study has helped to trigger a national debate as to whether, having not executed anyone since 1987, Kenya should cease to be an abolitionist de facto (ADF) country, and move to de jure abolition. Ouko is a passionate advocate that it should.
Ouko’s relative affluence made him an atypical death row inmate. He had graduated from high school, spoke English, and had a secure, well-paid job as an interior designer. His family could afford to hire him a capable lawyer. Yet none of this, he says, protected him from injustice.
At the time of his arrest, Ouko, then 28, was living in Nairobi, a married father with a daughter aged five and a son who was three. His wife, Jenni, managed a beauty salon, and was about to open her own when she was brutally murdered on her way home from work early in the night of 18 December 1998. The attack’s location was bizarre: it took place right outside the fence of a police station, under the noses of numerous uniformed officers. If for any reason he had wanted to kill his wife, Ouko points out, that would have been the most unlikely of locations to commit such a crime. He has always insisted that when Jenni was murdered, he was at home with his children, house help and Jenni’s sister.
However, when he went to the police station expecting to be told under what circumstances Jenni had lost her life, he was arrested for her murder and held without charge for 60 days. Throughout this time, Ouko says, corrupt police officers made approaches to his mother and other relatives to demand a bribe of 100,000 Kenyan shillings, a sum equivalent to 20 times the then monthly salary of a police or prison officer. On his insistence, they refused – “I was innocent. There was no evidence against me. My mum went through hell, but I said there was no way she should pay that money.”
In the intervening years, Ouko and his legal team have amassed evidence that, he says, suggests he was framed. For example, there had been two prosecution witnesses who both had made statements saying they would not be able to recognise the man responsible, but in court, they identified Ouko. Years later, Ouko says, they were interviewed by a private investigator, and admitted they had lied.
It wasn’t only at night that Ouko’s life on death row was hard. “I never thought I was going to be executed, but it felt like a war setting, that I was fighting for my life,” he says. “I couldn’t be sure I would survive the terrible healthcare, the poorly-cooked food, the separation from my loved ones.” Death row prisoners had no work or access to education. There were also frequent beatings, described by Ouko as “torture”, by guards wielding batons. Meanwhile, his children were living with Ouko’s mother-in-law. They did not visit for eight years, Ouko says, because she had told them he was dead.
Conditions began to improve at the end of 2002, when the man Ouko calls “uncle Moody”, the then Vice President Moody Awori, who openly stated that he wanted to abolish the death penalty, introduced reforms. Guards were deprived of their batons. Where there had been 14, now only five prisoners shared each cell: “That felt very manageable.” The following year, Kenya began to commute death sentences to terms of imprisonment, a process that eventually would benefit thousands. The food improved. Death row prisoners were allowed to work, and to be schooled.
Ouko seized these opportunities to the utmost. Prisoners were also allowed to make art, an activity he fostered by starting an art club at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison: “We designed greetings cards, love cards. Inmates are very romantic. They like to send a lot of cards, and we used this to raise money.”
In 2007, still behind bars, he founded an NGO, Crime Si Poa, which means ‘crime is not cool’: “What worried me was the numbers of young people coming into prison. I wanted to block that pathway.” Since Ouko’s release in 2016, it has thrived, with 14 staff at its Nairobi headquarters and more at its seven – soon to be ten – provincial outposts. “Our model is to empower people by giving them knowledge and skills,” Ouko says. “We work on the streets, in the schools, and in prisons, so that those on the street go to school, those in school avoid prison, and those in prison don’t come back.”
His rising profile meant the authorities began to invite him to attend meetings and conferences outside Kamiti’s walls. Once, he says, he found himself on a panel with the lawyer who had prosecuted him at his trial. On another occasion, Kenya’s then-Attorney-General “asked if I’d like to study law. I said I would.” In 2013, he began to read for a Diploma in Law at the University of London: “I had a big box of books and papers and access to material online. I used to study in the prison documentation office. My supervisor, Professor Jenny Hamilton, really supported me and came to visit.”
In 2015, he became the first prisoner anywhere in Africa to become legally qualified, an occasion marked by a prison ceremony attended by staff at the British High Commission. By this time, he was using his skills to draw up appeal applications by other death row prisoners: “In my last year alone, I submitted nine appeals. Six of them were successful. People used to joke with me, saying ‘you’re getting these guys home, but you’re still here’!”
Some years earlier, a supportive prison officer had vowed to help Ouko find his children, about whose whereabouts he had no idea. The job was difficult, because Ouko’s in-laws had changed their surnames, but he found them though their school. Towards the end of 2006, he saw them for the first time in eight years: “Just to sit with them was incredible. They began to visit constantly, as they went through high school and university.” His daughter, he says with evident pride, studied law, and his son electrical engineering.
In 2016, Ouko says, “I took a leap of faith and wrote to President Uhuru Kenyatta, asking to go home. I said I didn’t agree with the decision of the court, but that I respected it, and that more than anything, I wanted to be free to attend my children’s graduation.” His pardon granted, Ouko was released on Kenyatta’s birthday, 25 October. The two men met early the following year.
“The day I was released, it was raining heavily,” Ouko says. “My mum came and hugged me. She broke down: I’d never seen her cry before. She and Jenni had been very close, and when I was jailed, it meant she lost two of those she most loved, but now she’d got one back. We had a celebration meal. My kids came, and friends. And then someone said: ‘You’re out of prison, but there’s no time to waste. Tomorrow you’ve got to mentor the youth.’”
Besides running Crime Si Poa, Ouko now spends his time advocating for abolition. Even in an ADF country such as Kenya, “where the death penalty is seemingly dead in practice”, there will always be the risk that executions might resume, and that conditions on death row will once again become inhumane. “Abolishing the death penalty would make people value human life more,” Ouko says, “and in my experience, long prison sentences are more of a deterrent anyway. That’s what people fear. Abolition is now about political leadership.”
Also driving him is the memory of a young man named Kiarie, whom he met in the Industrial Area Remand Prison and then at Kamiti.
“This guy was charged as an adult, but he was underage,” Ouko says. “Everyone knew he was innocent, but in 2017, just after I left, his appeal was dismissed. He was found dead in the basement cells beneath the court. That was such a traumatic thing: that a young man could use his belt to commit suicide at the place where he should have got justice. I want to honour his memory by getting the death penalty abolished; to do it for him.”
David Rose is Politics and Investigations Editor of the Jewish Chronicle. His book, Violation: Justice, Race and Serial Murder in the Deep South is published by Harper Collins, and in the US, under the title The Big Eddy Club, by The New Press.