Court of Appeal Judge Prof Otieno Odek, whose death shocked many, had a full in-tray with a dozen high-profile cases, some of which were due for judgments this coming week.
Yesterday, Odek was expected in the office by 6am, as usual, but kept his colleagues in the three-judge bench waiting until 9am, when news about his death filtered into the Kisumu Law Courts.
The law professor’s lifeless body was found in his apartment, less than a kilometre from the courts after police, called in by neighbours and Judiciary staff, broke down the door to the apartment where he lived alone as his family is in Nairobi.
His colleagues, Justices Asikhe Makhandia and Patrick Kiage, had arrived at the Court of Appeal and were waiting for him to proceed with court matters. “He comes to court by 6am but this morning the other two judges had waited for him till 8am,” a staffer said, terming the act unusual.
Yesterday, President Uhuru Kenyatta mourned the Court of Appeal judge describing him as a prolific intellectual and a gifted legal mind.
The President said Odek’s death was not only a big blow to his family and the Judiciary but the country which he "served with commitment and dedication in the dispensation of justice without fear or favour".
“In this hour of sorrow and grief, I convey my deepest sympathies and heartfelt condolences to Prof Justice James Otieno Odek’s family, relatives and friends,” Uhuru said.
Chief Justice David Maraga led the Judiciary and the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) in mourning Odek, who hailed from Rarieda in Siaya County.
Odek, as The Standard learnt, was to be the duty judge this week in Kisumu.
The cause of death had not been established by the time of going to press yesterday as his colleagues and family waited to know the results of a postmortem.
Failed to reach him
Justice Odek’s driver who had gone to pick him tried calling him, but his phone was off. He then decided to move to his house labelled Door 2B on the second floor of the Groovehut Apartment, off Nairobi Road.
The door was locked from inside, prompting the driver to go back to the courts to report. A few court officers went to confirm after unsuccessfully trying to reach the judge on phone.
The matter was then reported to Central Police Station and officers accompanied the court staff to the scene, where they broke down the door to access the house.
Witnesses said the 56-year-old professor was found lying in his bed facing the ceiling. He appeared to be sleeping.
According to colleagues, the judge left work as usual on Friday, and was dropped at the apartment by his driver.
“After dropping him every Friday, the driver would leave the car here, and only be seen on Monday when coming to pick him again,” said a neighbour who asked not to be named.
For close to two hours, pathologists, detectives and some of the senior judicial officers in Kisumu, witnessed a preliminary autopsy.
By 12.10am, the officers carried Odek’s body wrapped in a white body bag from the second floor, to the ground floor where a Kisumu Maximum Prison Ambulance was waiting.
Senior Resident Magistrate Beryl Omollo said a prayer, before the body was loaded into the ambulance and driven to Aga Khan Hospital mortuary in a large convoy.
His car was driven back to the court parking yard.
Back in court, activities had been temporarily stopped as judicial officers and lawyers, shocked at hearing of the death, tried to come to terms with the news.
The team, which had pledged to address the media at the mortuary later said the family would do it.
Justice Kiage only noted that the loss was huge, and they were yet to come to terms with it. “What we can say is that this is a big loss to us as colleagues and the Judiciary. We cannot get into the matter now, and we request that you wait for the family to address more,” he said.
Justice Odek’s wife, Anne, was said to be in Nairobi when the news was broken. His brother Isaac Omondi who was also away confirmed having received the news, but said he was not in a position to reach Kisumu in time.
“We are planning to transfer the body to Nairobi, so I will be waiting to receive the body at the airport. But a few of our family members are on their way there including my elder brother who is coming from Eldoret,” said Mr Omondi.
Judicial staff as well as members of the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) hailed Odek for his exemplary service to the nation.
Bruce Odeny, the chairman of LSK, described him as a hardworking scholar who dedicated his life to serving Kenyans diligently.
“Prof Odek made immense contribution to the judicial system. He was an academician and most of the decisions he made in court have formed references that we use,” said Odeny.
The sad news not only saw the Court of Appeal halt all its matters but all the other courts adjourned their proceedings as judges and magistrates rushed to Justice Odek’s house in Millimani Estate, Kisumu.
The other courts and registries received the news from Chief Magistrate Julius Ng’arng’ar.
They said that Odek was in good shape when they last saw him in court.
[Kevin Omollo, Harold Odhiambo and Ann Atieno]