Fatal dose: Children innocent victims of poison murders

Close to half of deaths in fatal poisoning cases filed in court in the past two and a half years are children.

The court figures, 18 children out of 43 people killed, are likely to be a serious underrepresentation of the actual numbers as many such deaths could be happening without cases being taken to court or even reported to authorities.

Though men were implicated in many more cases of fatal poisoning (28) between 1995 and 2018, women were charged for the deaths of two-thirds of the children killed (see chart below). This despite the societal perception of women as generally having a soft spot for children.

Poison, always thought of as a weapon of the weak and cunning, has a long and regretful use in society. In ancient Rome, Agrippina was famed as a notorious poisoner as she disposed of anyone who stood in her way to political power. She poisoned palace advisers, her husband as well as the emperor's wife and son to allow Nero, her son, to become the emperor. Perhaps the most notorious of all poisoners in history was Giulia Toffana of Sicily. An estimated 600 men succumbed to her poison between 1650 and 1709 through her branded poison famously known as Aqua Toffana (Water of Toffana). She peddled the poison disguised as a cosmetic and advised pouring it into tea, chocolate or soup. Her great sympathy for poor wives who hated their husbands and wanted to get rid of them made her offer it for free. The governor of Naples finally put a stop to her trade when he discovered her poison was so deadly that a mere six drops in a glass of wine would kill.

In France, the potion gained the phrase Poudre de Succession (inheritance powder). Women became the chief customers as it was a convenient and swift way to secure inheritance in a world that accorded them no claim to property.

The Germans have a word for women who kill children - Kindermörderin (child murderess). A play written by Heinrich Leopold Wagner in 1777 and going by the same title captures the tragic fate of Evchen. She is raped by a police officer after taking wine laced with a sleeping powder. Evchen becomes pregnant, and the officer promises marriage, only to revoke the promise. Filled with the humiliation and scandal of an illegitimate child, Evchen kills the child.

Like Evchen, Jackline Ingato Otieno faced the charge of murdering her three children - Sheril Otieno, Unity Apiyo and Peace Adongo - in Mulaha sub-location in Siaya County. In the High Court criminal case number 70 of 2011 In Kisumu, it is alleged that on October 21, 2011, Jackline fed poison to her four children - two died on the spot, one succumbed at the hospital and another survived.


While at the hospital undergoing treatment for poisoning, the police took advantage of Jackline's absence and conducted a search, seizing a bottle of Diazinon - a pesticide harmful to humans when ingested. In almost all poisoning cases in Kenyan courts, Diazinon features as the main poisoning agent. It derives its toxicity from phosphorus compounds that attack the nervous system, causing headache, nausea, dizziness, sweating, blurred vision, and muscle weakness. It is classified under low toxicity and hence is only fatal when ingested in large quantities.

In the case, an assistant government chemist analysed the contents of the bottle of Diazinon found at Jackline’s home and it matched the stomach contents of the three children and the cause of death – poisoning.

The crux of the case lay in proving that Jackline administered the poison to her children. Since the case lacked an eyewitness to testify on how and who delivered the poison, Judge Esther Nyambura Maina ruled that there was no evidence at all to connect the accused to the administration of the toxin. The accused, therefore, had no case to answer and was acquitted of all the charges.

Smooth operators

Only one in 10 women suspects was found guilty of murder by poisoning in Kenyan courts compared with nine men out of 10.

Are women smooth operators who are far better than men in concealing their tracks after such murders or could it be that they are in most cases wrongfully accused in the first place and hence leading to weak cases?

Unlike Evchen and Jackline, most women charged in Kenyan courts for poisoning children don't kill their own but the unfortunate offspring of their co-wives, neighbours and other relations. Such is criminal case 110 of 2003 heard in the Meru High Court.

Agnes Kasyoke Ibrahim was charged with murdering Egnesious Mugambi, the son of her husband's brother on April 2, 2013 In Gitu village in Meru County. On that fateful day, Lucy Kawira Peter (the deceased's mother) prepared and served tea to her farming assistants and left some in the thermos for Agnes to give to the deceased, whom she was looking after. On taking the tea during a farming break, Lucy noticed a bitter taste. She had served the remaining tea to Agnes’ husband and her friend’s child (Fridah), who both started complaining of dizziness and extreme pain in the stomach, including the deceased. Lucy raised an alarm and they were all taken to hospital, but the deceased died on the same day.

Fridah testified that before the accused left her house to take care of Lucy's son, she entered her own house, took some flour-like substance in a cup and stirred it with a spoon before carrying it in a container. The accused then took a few minutes in Lucy's house and returned with an empty container. Another witness, 14-year-old Lillian Gacheri, and a friend of the deceased, testified that Agnes (the accused) emerged from her house with a flour-like substance in a spoon in one hand and a container. The accused told her she was going to get tea for the deceased. She proceeded to the house and stayed for 10 minutes. When she was back she was asked by Lillian whether she had given the tea to the deceased, she kept quiet.

Analysis of the stomach contents of the deceased by government analyst Leonard Waweru revealed the presence of Methomyl - a potent insecticide issued by the government. Analysis of the thermos flask also detected the presence of the deadly chemical. Judge Ruth Sitati found Agnes guilty of murder.

It is only in such rare circumstances when eyewitness accounts corroborated proof of poisoning that women suspects were convicted.

Lone wolf

Like the proverbial lone wolf, poisoners prefer to act alone - 81 percent of the cases feature a single person as the accused. Poison, unlike other weapons of murder, requires a medium to deliver the fatal exposure. As such, the necessary secrecy needed in administering the toxin lends itself better to an individual venture. When Peter Musau Mutua faced the charge of murder in 2011, he had orchestrated a nefarious solo act of wickedness.

Peter worked as a shamba boy. On the night of December 30, 2010 at Karen Brooke, his girlfriend Pauline Wanjiku Kimani visited him in his servant quarter. An argument broke between them.

Pauline's parents didn't approve of Peter’s bid to marry her, because he belonged to another tribe. Another suitor already asked her hand in marriage. Filled with bitterness, Peter allegedly sneaked rat poison into the wine that Pauline drank. Blood oozed from her nose, and after a few minutes, her lifeless body lay on the floor. In a state of confusion, Peter dug a shallow grave and buried her in the compound of his employer. A guilty conscience led Peter to disclose the murder to a co-worker, who revealed the information to a cousin of the deceased, leading to his arrest and prosecution.

Years of poisoning

Nairobi never had poisoning cases for a long time, until 2011 when two cases came to court. Incidentally, it is this year that recorded the highest number of poisoning cases (see the chart at the top of the page). The accused were male, both of whom were found guilty. It seems a bad idea to poison anyone in Nairobi - on the contrary, it may indicate Nairobians prefer other means of eliminating a target.

Most of the poisoning cases occur away from major urban locations. Nairobi has two instances, Mombasa three cases, and Kisumu has none. In Nakuru and Uasin Gishu counties, poisoning cases happen in rural areas. Generally, 89 percent of the incidents took place in rural or peri-urban areas. The observation appears to invalidate Lucius Annaeus Seneca's quote that "one is more likely to drink poison in a golden cup than an ordinary one".

The author is a data scientist. @blackorwa


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