By Janet A Sesay
State prosecutors, including the Attorney-General (AG), have failed to tender a pistol they alleged was in possession of Alfred Paolo Conteh while on a meeting to State house.
Mr Conteh, a former Minister of Defence, is answering to a charge of treason as prosecutors alleged that he was about to assassinate President Julius Maada Bio and take over administration of the state of Sierra Leone.
Two officials of the Small Arms Commission, Anthony Sinnah and Prince Judge Hughes second and third accused respectively also face similar charges.
The AG, Dr Priscillia Schwartz and team prosecute for the state, and Dr Abdulai O. Conteh, a former Attorney-General and team defend the first accused, Paolo Conteh.
The prosecution’s failure to tender the right pistol followed a successful objection raised by one of the defence counsels, Joseph Fitzgerald Kamara when the third prosecution witness, Detective Inspector Nathaniel Williams was testifying.
The defence’s devastating objection was premised on the tendering of a pistol with a wrong serial number in evidence during last Friday’s proceedings.
The wrong number stated in evidence is 240, while the actual and correct number of the pistol is 234.
The inaccuracy of the pistol number was discovered upon confirmation by the witness, Inspector Williams, an exhibit clerk at the crime writer’s office at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) headquarters in Freetown.
The Prosecution’s failure to tender the pistol with the right serial number, Counsel Kamara argued indicated that the prosecution wanted to tender a different pistol to the court.
In his response to the defence’s objection, a member of the prosecution team, Joseph Sesay argued that the serial number of the pistol could not be sufficient grounds for the exhibit not to be tendered in court.
“The witness has given a description of the item, and if any error is identified, it can be corrected with another question,” Counsel Sesay submitted.
In his counter-argument, Joseph Fitzgerald Kamara reminded the court that the witness, in his testimony, identified Glock-17 240 as the pistol he received in his official capacity.
Counsel Kamara also told the court that the witness gave testimony about Glock-17 240 and that the prosecution requested him to tender the same pistol in evidence.
The defence counsel vehemently objected to the tendering in evidence of a weapon which, he said, was not before the court.
“It is a different weapon the witness sought to tender; he must bring Glock-17 240 pistol before the court,” he urged.
Counsel Kamara insistently implored the Judge to rule on the objection noting that it went into the heart of the indictment.
Having heard submissions from state and defence counsels, the learned Judge, Justice Momoh Jah Stevens ruled in favour of the defence team.
Justice Stevens ruled that the pistol should not be tendered in evidence owing to inconsistency of the pistol.
“In any proceedings, the exhibit in court can only be admissible after proper foundation has been laid regarding the description,” the judge corrected the prosecuting team.
After the ruling, the prosecution applied to the bench for a ten-minute stand down to rectify the error which was granted by the court.
Later, the prosecution resurfaced and tendered in evidence a list of exhibits in a paper which was admitted and formed part of the court records.
In his testimony on that day, Inspector Williams told the court that he attached to the Crime Writer’s Office as an exhibit clerk.
He outlined his main duties as the reception and keeping of all exhibits relating to cases investigated at the CID.
He further testified that on 24th, March, this year, he was on duty when the investigating officer, DPC Abu Sesay handed over to him one Glock-17 pistol with serial number EFEF 240 with ten rounds which, he said; he counted in Sesay’s presence.
Another items, witness said, a brown hand bag, one Glock-21 pistol with serial number, MUX 841, two empty magazines, one damaged red lock, one fire arms license bearing the name: Alfred Paolo Conteh were also handed over to him.
“I took possession of all exhibits and registered them in a court register against serial number 38/2020,” Inspector Williams told the court.
The witness was cross-examined by one of the defence counsels, Andy Macauley.
Similarly, another prosecution witness, Staff Sergeant, Dauda Yemi attached to the Presidential Guard Force at State House also took the witness stand on the same day.
In his testimony, he recognised the first and second accused persons and recalled 19th March, this year.
On the said date, witness told the court, he was on duty at State House when the Chief Security Officer told them some visitors were on the way to meet with the President.
He also told the court that at about 9pm, he saw the visitors approaching and that on their arrival they passed through the scanning machine and went upstairs.
Staff Sergeant Dauda further testified that, not too long, he saw the first accused, Mr Paolo Conteh approaching.
“He reached the reception, but refused to go through the metal detector machine, and to put his bag on the scanner,” witness told the court.
The witness also testified that the accused, Paolo Conteh by-passed the scanner trying to go upstairs when the operator, police Constable Vackie called him to have his bag scanned.
“I expect Paolo Conteh, upon that point, to comply, but did not as he was showing some amount of urgency,” Witness told the court.
The first accused, Paolo Conteh later walked towards his table, witness said, holding a small brown bag.
Sergeant Dauda recounted that it was at that point in time Paolo Conteh told him he had a pistol in his bag.
“I told him to place the bag on the table, and he complied before going upstairs to attend the meeting,” witness testified.
After the accused, Paolo Conteh had gone to the meeting, witness narrated, he handed over the bag to PC Vackie for scanning.
“We found out that a pistol was inside the bag and I made a report to Lieutenant Colonel Kposowa,” witness said.
On the same day, witness told the court the accused made statements at the CID.
At this point, one of the prosecutors, Adrian Fisher asked the witness if he could identify the brown bag if it was shown to him.
Witness answered in the affirmative, but could not identify a brown bag that was shown to him by the prosecution.
At this point, Counsel Kamara made an application that the court conducts a locus in quo (a visit) at the crime scene at State House owing to witness’s testimony.
“In the interest of justice, I implore the court to move to the scene to see the position of the scanner and reception desk so that the judge and jurors can get a better understanding of the setting,” Counsel Kamara appealed.
State Counsel, Adrian Fisher was not opposed to the defence’s application on the visit of the crime scene.
However, Counsel Fisher told the court that it was premature to apply for a Locus in Quo arguing that there were witnesses yet to testify on the scanning machine.
He also submitted that State House was not an ordinary building that someone could just go into.
He implored the court to wait for the prosecution to finish their case before such visit is made.
Adding weight to the defence’s application, Dr. Abdulai Conteh argued that it was better for the court to visit the scene before the prosecution finishes their case.
“We don’t have to wait until all the witnesses shall have testified. The court could visit crime scene on a Sunday,” he submitted.
The Attorney General, Priscillia Schwartz said the visit should not be on weekend, but on a working day.
“What we are presenting in court was done on a working day when all workers were on duty and the car wash boys were also around,” she said.
This is not the first time the prosecution has failed to tender an exhibit crucial to Paolo’s trial.
A little over a month ago, the prosecution similarly failed to produce a video footage to inform the court what exactly transpired between the accused, Mr Paolo Conteh and the Presidential Guards at State House.
The two big blunders on the part of the prosecution team have generated the hottest topics for discussions around the trial of Paolo Conteh.
The accused persons were arraigned before the Judge on sixteen counts of treason, possession of small arms without license, aiding and abetting the commission of an offence and other related charges contrary to section 39 (1) of the Treason and State offences Act No 10 of 1963 as amended.
The particulars of offence indicated that the accused, on Thursday 19th March 2020 at State House Tower Hill in Freetown, endeavoured to carry out, by force, the assassination of President Julius Maada Bio, by evading the security system at State House while attending a meeting at State House.
The particulars of offence further state that the first accused, Paolo Conteh between 26th February and 3rd March 2020 in Freetown, endeavoured to procure unlawful means, an alteration of the procedures for the unlawful acquisition of fire arms, as provided by law in respect of a Glock-17 pistol, with serial number BEFE 234 as provided by law.
The second accused, Sahr Anthony Sinnah, on a date unknown did an act involving the commission of an offence of treason.
The charge sheet also states that the first accused on 5th October 2018 in Freetown, had in his possession a small arm, to wit a pistol, with serial number MUX 841001073, without valid license.
The charge sheet ended that the second and third accused, Sahr and Prince, on a date unknown between 26th February and 3rd March 2020 in Freetown, procured the commission of an offence in contravention of regulation 31 of the Arms and Ammunition Regulations of 2014.
By Janet A Sesay