Supreme Court quashes bribery conviction

The Supreme Court has upheld an appeal by election candidate Tuala Joe Ponifasio.

The decision was made by Supreme Court Justice, Tafaoimalo Leilani Tuala-Warren, who also set aside the conviction to acquit him and quashed the bribery conviction by the District Court. 

Justice Tafaoimalo expressed concerned at the motives of the informants.

“It was blatantly obvious from their evidence that the motive was entrapment of the appellant.” 

According to the ruling, the appeal stems from the decision of District Court in 2017, which convicted and sentenced Ponifasio on six charges of bribery. 

The conviction is in relation to charges brought in a private prosecution against the appellant by the successful candidate in the 2016 election. The appellant was one of three candidates who ran for election in the electoral district of Gagaaemauga 1. 

The charges against Tuala were based on the testimonies of constituency voters: Fa’atauuu Malautea, Felagolagomai Tino, Ituao Enele, Taulamago Simone, Tevaga Samilolo and Va Vea. 

They were represented by lawyer Ruby Drake, while Mauga Precious Chang represented Tuala. The appeal hearing was held August last year.  

Justice Tafaoimalo noted that while looking at the evidence in its totality, confined herself to the test: “[A] verdict will be unreasonable if, having regard to all the evidence, the jury (Judge in this case) could not reasonably have been satisfied to the required standard that the accused was guilty.”

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“I have cautioned myself that an appellate court will only interfere with a trial judge’s finding of fact in exceptional circumstances. I am mindful that the trial judge had the advantage of seeing the witnesses."

“However, I am persuaded that the decision was wrong in this case. A witness can be credible but give evidence which does not meet the threshold, or which is influenced by an improper motive. Where there is a credible narrative capable of creating doubt, it should not be ignored.” 

Justice Tafaoimalo then pointed out a flaw in the prosecution case which is the lack of evidence, which she said showed that the informants and those named in the information were voters in the constituency within which the appellant was competing. 

“The only evidence is the word of the witnesses.” 

The Justice said that Ponifasio’s right to a fair trial and right to silence was also jeopardised. 

“I realise defence counsel is senior and the defendant is a lawyer by profession. However, the constitutional right of a defendant to a fair trial applies to all defendants, regardless of who they are." 

“The defendant being a lawyer by profession does not take away from the fact that the procedure of the Court is controlled by the Court, and the way in which proceedings are run should not cause the defendant any prejudice." 

“With all due respect, adopting a practice or procedure because it is practical or expedient is not to be done at the expense of a fair trial for a defendant."

“On the whole, the motives of the informants are highly concerning. It was blatantly obvious from their evidence that the motive was entrapment of the appellant." 

“The attendance of the informants, in particular Taulamago Sione and his sons – as well as Va at meetings for the appellant’s committee – holding themselves out as committee members and receiving money, which are the subject of these charges, is highly questionable." 

“Motive only becomes evident when the evidence is looked at in totality, which this Court has done. With respect, motive needs to be borne in mind for future prosecutions of this nature,” Justice Tafaoimalo added in her ruling. 

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