‘I spent 20 years in jail for a crime I did not commit’

2018-02-17 19:08
PHOTO: Aphiwe Boyce

PHOTO: Aphiwe Boyce

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It was a moment he’d dreamt of for nearly 20 years – and a moment he’d given up all hope of experiencing.

Standing outside the prison gates was the beautiful daughter he’d only seen when she visited him behind bars.

Now she was there to watch him take his first steps as a free man. “She brought me a new pair of jeans and a shirt so I could leave my prison clothes behind,” an emotional Lucky Shange says.

The 40-year-old made headlines recently when he was released from Durban’s Westville Prison after the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) overturned his sentence on a technicality. He spent almost two decades locked up for a crime he didn’t commit until he was finally freed into a world very different to the one he’d known back then. When he was arrested in 1998 there were no smartphones, Nelson Mandela was president and Donald Trump told Oprah Winfrey he’d only run for president if things “got really, really bad”.

Now Lucky has to adapt – and making everything worse is he should never have been incarcerated in the first place. He spent two years as an awaiting trial prisoner before being convicted of murder, robbery with aggravating circumstances and possession of an unlicensed firearm in 2000.

He was sentenced to life in prison. Throughout his years behind bars his daughter, Thando, never stopped believing in her father’s innocence – although it took a lot longer to convince authorities he’d committed no crime. He feels “such deep sorrow” that his child grew up without him and the joy he felt seeing her waiting for him on the outside is indescribable, he says.

“That sight is etched in my memory for life. Just like the day I received a call telling me about my imminent release.” Lucky doesn’t know where to start picking up the pieces of his life which is “messed up”, he says. “I have nothing.

“I could’ve gone far by now.”

He spent almost 7 000 days in jail and he’ll never get them back. “My children needed their daddy and I wasn’t there. I’ve been robbed of a life. I was robbed of a family. I was robbed of many things.”

Lucky was just 20 when he was arrested for the murder of a taxi boss in Montclair near Durban. The dead man’s taxi was found outside Lucky’s house and members of the taxi association hunted him down, telling him they would kill him unless he confessed to the murder. “I had no choice but to confess – then they beat me up until I collapsed,” Lucky recalls.

“I woke up in the police station the following day.” He pleaded not guilty to all charges but was convicted on the basis of his false confession.

He spent “hellish” days in jail that to this day he can’t talk about. “It’s hard in there – there’s no life there.” Lucky never stopped professing his innocence yet no one took him seriously until one day a lawyer who specialises in criminal appeals visited the prison and heard his story.

 Zamani Ncama says he spotted the holes in the confession that led to Lucky’s conviction as soon as he took the case and knew his client was innocent.

“No one can be sentenced based on a forced confession,” he says. “That’s not constitutional.

Secondly, the presiding officer [magistrate] didn’t inform Lucky of his constitutional right that one who confesses to crime must do it freely and voluntarily. I knew justice could still be done.” Still, it took three years for Zamani to get the wheels of justice turning and the conviction overturned.

But he never gave up, even when they first took the case on appeal in Pietermaritzburg and it was refused.

They then petitioned the SCA for special leave to appeal in 2015 and this was granted. The case was heard on Tuesday 2 May, and the SCA ruled that the conviction and sentences should be set aside.

The court found the trial magistrate hadn’t sat with assessors while the case was being heard. This went against the magistrate’s court act, which states that assessors have to be appointed to hear murder cases in regional courts unless the accused requests otherwise. Also, the SCA found that Lucky hadn’t been legally represented during his trial.

“And there’s nothing on the record to suggest he was ever made aware of the requirement that the regional magistrate sits with assessors or of his right to choose whether assessors assist with the trial.

The regional magistrate nowhere recorded that he had made such a request,” the court ruled. Lucky had not been given a fair trial, the court decided, and he was freed on a technicality.

Throughout his years in prison the fact his daughter never doubted his innocence or his love for her kept him going. Thando was just a toddler when he went to prison and his second daughter, Mandisa (now 18), still a baby.

Yet Thando was his most faithful visitor. “After she got her ID she started visit visiting me on her own almost every week,” he says. But he’s angry that he missed out on so much of her and her sister’s lives – their first steps, their first days at school, their report cards. He’s also angry he missed both his parents’ funerals.

“When I was arrested I was living with my mother,” he says. “She died in 2004 and my father died in 2007 and I couldn’t say my final farewells to either of them. I was severely depressed both times – I even fainted and had to be taken to King Edward VIII Hospital for assessment.”

Right now he’s enjoying his freedom, his children and the luxury of not being locked up every night. He hasn’t decided whether he’ll seek compensation from the state for his wrongful incarceration, he adds – he just wants to focus on getting a job, supporting his children and getting on with his life.

“Twenty years is a long time to be gone,” he says. “I have a lot of time to make up.”  

Read more on:    jail

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