A South Carolina couple accused of torturing their 10-year-old foster child in Uganda has avoided jail time by paying a $28,000 fine as part of a plea deal — sparking outrage among local activists.
Nicholas and Mackenzie Spencer lived close to the Ugandan capital Kampala when they were first arrested in December 2022. A nanny who worked for the couple told authorities how their Ugandan foster child was treated.
The initial charges the couple faced included aggravated child torture and aggravated child trafficking, the latter of which can carry the death penalty in Uganda.
The Spencers were able to reach a settlement with prosecutors, who ordered them to pay fines of about $28,000 after pleading guilty to child abuse and degrading treatment.
Activist Proscovia Najjumba called the agreement a mockery of justice.
“How can a couple who admit to beating and abusing a child, depriving him of food and water and making him stay in a cold room without clothes, get a light sentence, pay a fine and… have to leave?” Najjumba told AFP.
Nicholas Spencer and his wife, Mackenzie Leigh Mathias Spencer, sit in court as the verdict was read out in a Kampala court on Tuesday
Nicholas Spencer, Mackenzie Leigh Mathias Spencer and their foster children. The pair are accused of trafficking and torturing one of the children
The pair also pleaded guilty to violating Uganda’s visa laws by working and staying in the country without documentation. They had been living in Africa since 2017.
‘The child needed help and support because he had lost his father and been abandoned by his own mother. Unfortunately, the suspects failed to control his peculiar behavior,” said High Court Judge Alice Kyomuhangi.
Speaking to Reuters, the couple’s lawyer, David Mpanga, said his clients were only trying to discipline and deal with the child, who was difficult to handle due to psychological problems.
“Maybe they started shooting,” Mpanga admitted. The attorney cited the couple’s lack of experience as parents as the reason for their missteps. The couple began raising the child in 2018, a year after moving to the country. In total they had three children in their care.
Since his parents’ arrest, he has been placed in state custody. About $13,000 of the fines will go to him.
The pair were released on bail in March, with prosecutors at the time accusing them of recruiting, transporting and detaining the child by “abusing their vulnerable position for the purpose of exploitation.”
The couple was held in the Luzira maximum security prison.
During her court appearance, Mackenzie Spencer was found to have a leg injury
The couple’s lawyer, David Mpanga, pictured here, told Reuters that the boy had psychiatric problems, including aggressive and antisocial behavior, and that the couple were trying to deal with a difficult child.
Before moving to Africa, Nicholas worked as a staffer for former Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy
It is unclear what type of humanitarian roles Mackenzie performed. Online, she claimed to be focused on ‘the empowerment and education of women’
The view from the Spencers’ apartment in Kampala, where they raised three children. Someone who worked at the house reported this
Before moving to Uganda in 2017, Nicholas worked as an assistant to former Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy.
Gowdy left office in 2019 after representing South Carolina’s 4th Congressional District for eight years.
Nicholas worked for him as a press and legislative assistant for six years.
His wife, Mackenzie, claimed in a 2019 GoFundMe that they moved to Africa to focus on “women’s empowerment and education.”
“We are also foster parents to three wonderful children,” she wrote in her appeal.
She asked for $28,000 to pay for spinal surgery, claiming she and her husband no longer lived in the US and were not entitled to health insurance.
Mackenzie received just under $5,000 in donations, but claimed online that the hospital agreed to pay her entire “$46,000 bill.”
She flew back to Spartanburg, South Carolina, for the surgery, leaving her husband and three foster children behind in the US.
Luzira, where the couple was held, is Uganda’s only maximum security prison, housing both male and female prisoners.
It is known for its competitive football league, where some death row inmates play alongside those convicted or accused of lesser crimes.
In 2020, the U.S. government filed criminal charges and imposed economic sanctions on a U.S.-based adoption ring that placed Ugandan children, who were not orphans, with families in the United States.