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Betty*

  • Sierra Leone
  • Death Penalty; mandatory death penalty

In 2017, Betty* was sentenced to death by hanging for the murder of her 9 month old child. She was the first woman in five years to receive a mandatory death sentence in Sierra Leone and became one of only two females in Sierra Leone on death row.

Betty's Story

Early in the morning of 26 June 2016, Betty was walking along a path near her home in Pujehun, in the Southern Province of Sierra Leone. She had her daughter tied by a lappa (fabric-tie) onto her back, as was usual. It was raining. Along the path Betty encountered some men who started to chase her. She did not know why they were pursuing her, but whilst trying to outrun them, she slipped and fell backwards onto the rocks that were on the path. She immediately got up and continued to run the short distance into town. It was only when she arrived in town that she realised her daughter was no longer on her back. Her daughter was found on the rocky path with head injuries and did not survive.

Betty was taken to the police station, where police told her that her daughter had died. She was interviewed by police, not in her native language, but in Mende, a language that she barely spoke. No lawyer was present. What is more, Betty’s interview statement was recorded in English, which the police ‘interpreted’ for her into Mende. In that statement Betty allegedly confessed to murdering her baby. Betty can’t read or write, so she fixed her thumb-print to this confession statement, as instructed by police. That confession formed the only evidence against her at trial.

Betty saw a lawyer for the first time in court on the first day of her trial, which was held during special court sessions designed to clear hundreds of criminal cases in a matter of weeks. Another counsel was then appointed on the second day of trial, after the confession had already been read to the jury. The judge granted him time only to read the case file. There were no eyewitnesses to what happened, except a man who supported Betty’s version that she fell. The pathologist agreed that the baby could have died from a fall.

On 2 October 2017, Betty was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging.

With the assistance of DPP and Advocaid, a local charity in Sierra Leone supporting women in conflict with the law, Betty sought to appeal her conviction based on a violation of her rights. When questioned, she had been denied access to a lawyer, she had not been interviewed in her native language, she had been denied an independent interpreter and later she was denied adequate time and facilities to prepare her defence. These are rights guaranteed in the Sierra Leone Constitution, in accordance with minimum guarantees for a fair trial under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. She also planned to challenge the mandatory nature of the death sentence imposed on her.

While the appeal was pending, Betty remained in custody on death row, many miles from her other children. Due to the distance and stigma of the accusation, neither her family nor anyone from her community ever visited her.

However, in January 2020, after three and a half years in custody and more than two under sentence of death, it was announced that Betty had received a full pardon from the President. Advocaid are now helping Betty settle back into the community.

*A pseudonym is used to protect the individual’s identity as well as that of her family.

Case Timeline

  1. Alleged murder of Betty’s child took place at Pujehun in the Southern Province. Her child was nine months old.

  2. Betty was indicted and the trial begins.

  3. Betty is convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging.

  4. Betty was pardoned and is due to be released.

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