The silence was almost pin drop. The only sound coming out of room number three on the ground floor of Nairobi’s High Court Complex was the voice of Judge James Wakiaga cutting through the tension packed room and resting on the ears of the dozens following the proceedings.
The gallery hang on to every word he read from a sheaf of papers in front of him. Nearby, the family of Kenneth Kimani Mwangi sat pensively, hoping that his death would finally be avenged.
A pensive Titus Ngamau Musila, alias Katitu, sat on the dock. He appeared jittery, often looking down to his feet and periodically turning his gaze skywards towards the gods that had walked by him in the course of a tumultuous and dangerous career in law enforcement. Would they protect him one last time?
The entire courtroom held its collective breath, minds flashing back to the events of April 14, 2013 at Githurai bus stage when -- in an ironic twist -- three bullets ended the life of a man and at the same time sent a whole neighborhood into fits of celebration.
“From the evidence tendered before me, he took his job with so much passion and was so popular that when he was charged, it triggered three days of protests along the busy Thika Road by matatu operators and residents of Githurai 45 that all charges be dropped as he was helping them ruthlessly fight crime,” Judge Wakiaga said.
Katitu’s case is not new. The Kenya Police Service (KPS) has provided a safe haven for officers who are the law unto themselves, effortlessly gunning down suspected thugs in disregard to established protocol. Often, their actions are looked at as heroic by a population now used to chaos and disorder.
Katitu’s arrest fit this profile perfectly. In fact, when he was arrested, a series of concerts were organised by those who believed in what he was doing to raise his bail. When the concerts failed to hit the target, one of the city’s most popular politicians stood in the gap.
“His popularity can further be confirmed by the fact that when he was released on bond, non-other than the current Nairobi County Governor, then a senator, personally paid the bond,” the judge said.
The Kenyan Police Service has been accused of extra-judicial killings, the height of which were the Muranga killings that led to the disappearance of around 500 young men, some of whom were dragged from their homes in the still of the night, never to be seen again. For many residents, the heroics of these men and women are worth celebrating. Sometimes though, this endless cheering has disastrous consequences.
“Since mid-2007, the Kenya Police have engaged in an orgy of extra-judicial killings and disappearances. In the last year and a half, with the connivance of the country’s political leadership, more than 500 young men have been killed or disappeared,” a 2008 Kenya National Commission on Human Rights report, The Cry of Blood, reads.
The report contained annexes which detailed the names of men executed by the police and those who have been disappeared. It also contained medical forensic evidence implicating the police, morgue records and post-mortem examination reports.
Based on this, a UN Special Rapporteur came into the country to investigate the gory allegations, and like the KNCHR report, his conclusion too was damning, painting a picture of a trigger happy police force that acted as judge, jury and executioner.
“Carte blanche killing by the police does nothing to eradicate such criminality. Rather it perpetuates the sense that the police are good at killing and bad at law enforcement,” Philip Alston, the UN Rapporteur, said in his final report.
Witnesses to such assassinations seldom speak out for fear of victimisation. But once in a while, they step up to the stand and give testimony. And when this happens, like in Katitu’s case, the system is compelled by law to eat its own. The same crowd that cheered him on provided the final nail on the coffin of a man, who operated like Githurai’s capped crusader. A total of 18 witnesses, some of whom were among those who supported his out of the box crime-beating methods were turned by the prosecution to testify against him.
One of them, a brother to the deceased, narrated to the court a chilling meeting between Katitu, himself and Mwangi, his dead sibling. He said that on this particular day, the policeman warned him to tell Mwangi to return a mobile phone he had stolen or be killed.
Other witnesses spoke on the trust they had placed on Katitu’s shoulders. For them, he was the glue that bound Githurai stage together and kept all the insanity at bay. Without him, they said, anarchy would reign supreme.
So when he was arrested for killing Mwangi, shooting him once on the forehead, under the mouth and finally at the back of his head, they heaved a sigh of relief. In their eyes, the world was less one criminal.
In his defense, Katitu’s lawyer Cliff Ombetta said he, Katitu, followed police procedure by shooting in the air to disburse the crowd and that a crime had been committed.
He insisted the deceased and several of the prosecution witnesses were thieves at the Githurai bus stage. Most importantly, he said there was no evidence proving that Katitu had killed Mwangi.
Mr Ombeta tabled evidence to show that the bullet head retrieved from the skull of the dead man did not come from the accused’s’ firearm.
The lawyer further argued that the prosecution did not produce in court three other officers who were on patrol duties with Katitu on the fateful day.
When he took the stand late last year, Katitu said he was being framed by right’s lobbies for a crime he did not commit.
“I fired thrice in the air to scare the suspects and crowd, which had begun to swell. Oscar (Mwangi) ran and hid behind a bus and when I went after him, he had already been shot,” Katitu told the court.
Having listened to both sides, Judge Wakiaga on Wednesday made his precedent-setting ruling to a hushed courtroom. As the judge spoke, Katitu stopped fingering his moustache. He picked a spot directly in front of him and stared at it.
Police Constable Katitu was all alone in the dock. The hundreds of residents who protested his arrest were nowhere in sight, unaware that their hero now stood the toughest of tests. This time, it was not another of his victims pleading for forgiveness. Instead it was he who stared down a gun’s barrel and this time, it was someone else’s finger curled around the trigger.
“Unfortunately for Katitu, our criminal justice system does not recognise popularity and public outcry as credible grounds for bail or acquittal. Furthermore, the court may not take kindly the actions that attempt to belittle the Constitution. Katitu therefore chose the wrong time to be a hero,” Wakiaga said effectively calling time on Katitu’s tenure as a loved law enforcer in Githurai.
The people, the gods and the law he had sworn to protect abandoned him.