The Application Of Last Seen Doctrine In Nigerian Criminal Justice System 

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By Sani Bello Hamza 

Malam, If by chance or luck you’re the last person seen with Audu and after a while, Audu is found dead–you are the killer and you are responsible for his death! Yes, you are responsible for his death.

Someone may ask; what about the principle of “Presumption of innocence”. The principle is still valid. The principle provides that an accused/suspect is presumed to be innocent until proven to be guilty. The onus of proving the guilt of the accused is on the prosecution and must be proved beyond reasonable doubt.

It is trite that for every general rule there is an exception. The exception for the afromentioned principle is the “Last Seen Doctrine”.

The last seen doctrine connotes that the last person seen with an individual who died after a while will be presumed to be the killer or responsible for the death of the deceased.

For example, if Audu is the last person seen associating with Ade and after few minutes Ade is found dead; Audu will be presumed to be the killer of Ade.

The court may invoke the Last Seen Doctrine in a trial where there is no clear cut evidence explaining the cause of death of the deceased. In such instance, the accused will not be presumed to be innocent and will be required to provide explanation for the deceased’s whereabouts. And the burden of prove will be shifted from the prosecution to the accused. [See State v. Sunday (2019) LPELR – 46943 (SC)]

The supreme court has for long in several decided cases expunged and applied this doctrine in criminal cases to ascertain the guiltness of an accused in a murder or culpable homicide trial.

Statutorily, section 167 of the evidence Act (2023) provides that a court may presume the existence of facts which it thinks likely to have happened.

There are several Judicial authorities with regards to this doctrine, one of which is the land mark case of Somefun v.The State (2023) NWLR pt. 1913 SC, where the supreme court while dismissing the Appellant’s appeal Per Justice Iyang Okoro, JSC held thus;

“For now, I wish to observe that the last seen principle relied upon by the lower courts to convict and sentence the appellant is a rebuttable presumption that the person last seen with a deceased bears the responsibility of his death unless he is able to give an explanation as to how the deceased met his death…….. In the absence of an explanation from the accused on how the deceased met his death, the court will be justified to convict the accused for the death of the deceased. (See also; Ghaniyu v. State (2023) NWLR pt. 1895 SC)

In the same case the supreme court states the ingredients which must be present before the last seen doctrine is invoked and applied by the court, the following ingredients present must be present;

– The time between the last seen of the accused and the deceased should be very short.

– The deceased should not have shown a sign of sickness or ailment before the time of his death.

Finally, It is note worthy that legal principles and doctrines are not vague and perverse; they are products of careful study and practical consideration–the last seen doctrine is not an exception. Though, the principle is rebuttable, it ease the work of judges and widen the scope of our legal system.

Sani Bello Hamza is a Law student at Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, he writes from Zaria and can be reached through his email; or 09013506168.


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