Several judges of the High Court of Zambia have been quite consistent and clear with regard to the evidence the prosecution needs to provide when proving the age of a minor in defilement cases. In following the 1973 legal precedence of the case of Phiri (Macheka) v. The People most judges have gone to hold that “age should be proven by one of the parents or by whatever other best evidence is available.” This case has formed an integral part of Zambia’s evidence law.
In a criminal case, the State has the burden of proving, beyond reasonable doubt, all the elements of a case. Main elements of most criminal cases hinge on at least two components: the prohibited act (called actus reus) and the required mental element (calledmens rea) that goes with it. In the case of child defilement, the prosecution must prove that an accused had sexual intercourse (the act) with a child and did this intentionally (the mental element). As mentioned earlier, the prosecution that must prove that (1) sex took place, (2) it was with a minor, and (3) the accused did this intentionally (s.138 of the Zambia Penal Code). It would be beyond the scope of this article to analyse each of these elements in detail. I should leave that to a university course in Criminal Law or Evidence Law. However, I just wish to deal with one element involved in this section: proof as to age of a victim.
The Law of Evidence deals with how a party can prove its case before an impartial tribunal. There are several sources of Zambian evidence law. I will mention only those relevant to this article. The first one is statute law. For example, CAP 43 of the Laws of Zambia (The Evidence Law Act) contains some guidelines with regard to evidence law. Second, most of the penal code provisions do come with some guidelines of how a particular offence can be proven. The third source of Zambian evidence law is the common law. By this we mean the law that has come to us through the history of precedence as interpreted by the judges. In fact, a bulk of what constitutes evidence law today comes from this area of law. It comes from what judges have ruled about what can be admitted and what cannot be admitted in court. The fourth source of evidence law is the trial judge or magistrate who is expected to use discretion to admit or reject some evidence if they will be prejudicial, or if the evidence will put the administration of justice into disrepute.
With specific reference to defilement cases, it is settled law, through the 1973 precedence that in proving the age of a victim, the testimony given by a parent in court “is conclusive unless evidence to the contrary is adduced” (Justice Siavwapain Tembo v. The People ). It cannot help an accused to simply dispute the testimony given by a parent of a victim while failing to adduce contrary evidence. When a parent to a victim of defilement testifies in an open court that a child is indeed a minor, any one wanting to challenge this testimony must, through cross-examination, discredit this testimony, or should provide contrary evidence. Failure to do so, unfortunately, could lead to a conviction.
While I cannot deal with the specific issue regarding the conviction and appeal of Mr. C. Dimba, who has been slapped with 18 years for defilement, it would be interesting to see how the judges will handle this appeal. As widely reported in the press, the convict is appealing on the basis that the prosecution did not provide sufficient evidence with regard to the age of the alleged victim. At the centre of this appeal is the denial, by the appellant that the victim is actually not a minor. The convict does not seem to deny that sex took place. Second, he does not deny that he did it intentionally. What he denies concerns the exact age of the victim. Without doubt, age is an essential ingredient of the offence of defilement (Mulonda v. The People, 2004). As such, what is at issue in this appeal is what weight if any, the trial court should have given to the testimony rendered by the parents of the victim in an open court. Again, this issue could hinge on how the Supreme Court will relate facts of this case with precedence already in place. Basing this appeal only on the reliability of a parent’s testimony is a very difficult proposition.
There have been comments about how that, in order to convict Dimba, the court must have been provided with “documentary” evidence about the age of a victim. Some are even suggesting that a medical or scientific proof should be provided to substantiate the age of a victim. This is where we need to differentiate reality from the fiction we find in Hollywood dramas such as “Criminal Minds” and stuff like that. In my opinion, all this obsession with scientific evidence is not as reliable as that provided by a parent of a victim. The viva voce(word of mouth) testimony given in a court of law is more like the golden standard of evidence. The word of mouth testimony given by a witness (the parent) in open court about what they observed with their senses is very difficult to dislodge. In this case, the parents had testified before the trial magistrate that this child was below the age of sixteen at the time this offence took place. You have to have a very strong case to be successful on appeal.
The 2005 reforms to s.138 of the Penal Code expunged the defence of “reasonable belief” from the offence of child defilement. In 2011, however, this defence was reinstated. Parliament did well to reinstate this defence. A person who otherwise is guilty of child defilement could use this defence. It shall be a defence for a person charged with an offence under s.138 to show that they had “reasonable cause to believe, and did in fact believe,” that the child was not a minor. I think this defence takes care of some grey areas so that only those who are truly culpable should go to jail. However, it is interesting that Justice Mchenga did allude to this when he mentioned in his sentencing that the convict did seem to know that the girl was a minor by asking her “not to come in uniform, but come in plain clothes.” This is a very persuasive finding of fact that could prove critical going forward. I doubt whether this defence could be available to someone who knew very well that a girl was a minor! The more you know, the less likely that you could be successful in raising this defence.
For proof, the testimony of a parent seems appropriate. For punishment, the judges are meting out stiff penalties. For the careless, s.138 should be taken seriously. If they are below 16 years of age and you have sex with them, then you will go in for 15 years and above. That’s the law!