NAIROBI, Kenya, May 7 – Naivasha rancher Tom Cholmondeley has been found guilty of manslaughter for the killing of stonemason Robert Njoya three years ago. High Court judge Muga Apondi reduced the initial murder charge to manslaughter on Thursday, saying the killing of Njoya was not malicious and premeditated.
“Due to the total circumstances of the case, the court reduces the charges to manslaughter. I therefore reject the defence case since it has no merit,” Justice Apondi ruled. “The defence is an afterthought on realising the gravity of the offence.”
Mr Cholmondeley had, in his defence, said that his friend Carl Tundo was the one who fired the killer shot.
The court has set the sentencing for Tuesday, May 12.
When the judgment was being read, reporters furiously scribbled and snapped away as Justice Apondi began by recalling facts in the case before a packed court room.
Mr Cholmondeley’s parents Lord Delamere and Lady Ann Delamere sat pensively during the three-hour judgment. The late Mr Njoya’s widow, Sarah, also followed the proceedings seated just two persons away from the father of her husband’s killer.
Tens of Mr Cholmondeley’s friends and relatives jammed the court on one side while on the other, those of stone mason Robert Njoya, whom he is accused of killing.
Mr Cholmondeley, the heir to Britain’s fifth Baron Delamere, has spent the last three years at Kamiti Maximum prison following the death of Mr Njoya on May 10, 2006.
Immediately after the pronouncement his lead lawyer Fred Ojiambo expressed shock saying he didn’t expect the judge to rule in the manner he did.
He said that they will institute an appeal against the judgment.
“I am particularly amazed that the judge has convicted on the basis of one individual who himself is a major suspect. I am shocked, and dumbstruck,” Mr Ojiambo said.
Sarah Njoya, the widow of the deceased later told reporters that she was happy with the verdict. “I didn’t expect that, but then it was not a very bad ruling. What I want them to consider is the plight of my children.”
“Life has been so difficult during the entire period since my husband was killed. Three years have been a long time, I have been forced to go out of my way to do a lot of casual jobs to fend for myself and my children,” she said.
The 40-year-old Mr Cholmondeley has denied the killing and only admitted to shooting dogs on his 55,000-acre Soysambu ranch but the case has re-opened the wounds of Kenya’s colonial legacy and prickly land ownership issues.
The Eton-educated aristocrat, opened fire on a group of poachers trespassing on his Soysambu property, between the towns of Naivasha and Nakuru.
Mr Cholmondeley had already faced murder charges after allegedly killing a game ranger Samson ole Sisina but the charges were later dropped for lack of evidence, fueling accusations from the local community that a colonial-era two-speed Judiciary was still in force in the country.
What captured people’s imagination was the case’s setting in "Happy Valley", the lush hills where Mr Cholmondeley’s great grandfather Lord Delamere founded a group of white settlers whose decadent lifestyle was chronicled in the book and film "White Mischief".
Soysambu is in the heart of the fertile escarpments where Kenya’s early settlers would pose with hunting trophies and ponder the future of the Imperial British East African Company.
The place has changed little since the swinging alcohol-addled years of Cholmondeley’s ancestors but the times have.
Since the country acquired its independence from Britain in 1963, a handful of "white Kenyans" have remained in the area but their properties are now surrounded by industrial flower farms and thousands of impoverished labourers.
The trial has dragged on, the authorities fully aware of the conundrum the case presents: evidence to convict Cholmondeley again appears weak but local tempers will boil if he walks free once more.
"Tom walked free after killing our son Samson ole Sisina in 2005 and we shall show our anger by demos if he walks free again," Topoika ole Kipenju, a representative of the Maasai community in Naivasha, told AFP.
Maasai herdsmen evicted from grazing corridors by settlers under lease deals struck in the 1900s are keen to reclaim land in much shorter supply after a century that saw Kenya’s population grow twenty-fold to almost 40 million.
Mr Cholmondeley – an elegant towering man with balding blond hair and thin glasses framing a chiselled jaw – was found not guilty in a non-binding verdict by a group of assessors on March 5.
While they have had to relinquish much of their sway on the country’s politics, a minority of the 30,000-strong white Kenyan community still enjoy a special status as the quaintly obsolescent heirs of Karen Blixen’s adventurous, refined friends and depositories of a certain Kenyan mythology.
Before his downfall, the safari-loving Mr Cholmondeley was the living symbol of that dying breed of white Africans and his trial highlighted the life of luxury still enjoyed by some of the dwindling band of white Kenyans which remains beyond the imagination of most of the population.
Straight out of Eton, Cholmondeley became Kenya’s junior motorcross champion and is said to have been gored by a buffalo on his way to a paragliding launching site in the Maasai Mara wildlife reserve.
“The judgment was quite comprehensive. I would want to believe that the court must not respond to public opinion but respond to facts,” Omar Hassan Omar said in response to the outcome.
He has however called for empowerment of police force so that officers can carryout proper investigations in such high profile case which has enormous public interest.